The Snowden leak has been immensely disappointing all around. It makes me sick to my stomach to read different constituencies circling their wagons on it. The outcome is almost certainly already written.
First of all, people are acting like it’s a major revelation that this stuff has been going on. Really? It’s been in the news since post-9/11 took shape, and, among people in DC who care about this stuff, it flared up in 2006 and 2007 with the EFF and ACLU finding its scent. Whistleblowers have been punished, military blogging has been pretty much extinguished, FISA silliness has made its way into Al-Qaeda propaganda, Hollywood movies, bad TV documentaries.
Technically speaking, with sheer processing speed and storage being rendered inexpensive with the advent of cloud computing and parallel processing across networks, along with massive amounts of investment by the NSA into equipment so much that it would affect local power stations, what did people really think was going on? Room 641A was uncovered by Mark Klein, a whistleblower whose name no one knows, and showed how the FBI could tap into telecoms. When did that happen? 2006! How much more evidence did people need for the story to blow up?
Mark Klein, whistleblower
People I know in NYC are for the most part universal human rights-type liberals, which is to say they strongly believe that the notion of freedom has something to do with expecting freedom as a standard right for all, but not really having much idea how to implement or enforce it except through dreamy notions of Hans Zimmer-soundtracked Supreme Court victory films and through self-example (thus “hipster” stuff like gardening, eating healthier, being a smarter consumer, exotic hobbies, etc., but without a similar push into practicing politics).
I felt like I was a broken record in our flying robots class as people would worry about the impact of drones, while I saw drones as an eventuality of the future and cared more about the policy impacts of an unchecked and unnoticed NSA, both my allegiance and suspicion of its work coming during my time in service when all this stuff was basically being prototyped in Iraq (after years of research on systems such as Echelon). Drones are a tool to gather intelligence for larger databases, and a technological replacement weapon for cruise missiles and gunships. By themselves, Predators and Reapers will be footnotes in history. The apparatus that collects, collates, targets, and scores potential enemies of the US will have a legacy that will lead us well into the end of this century.
Many of the non-security people I follow on Twitter are mostly journalists or DC -based or -biased analysts, which means to say that they are indulging in the sauciness of the Snowden story while at the same time indignant at the idea that the government is spying on journalists as well as the American public.
The initial journo phase of giving Snowden a pass on reporting accuracies gave way to a more careful view of his story now (in other words distancing themselves from admiration of his courage), particularly as he’s had contact with countries considered non-friendly with the US and incompatible with the principles of freedom of speech and civil liberty. There’s still a strong undercurrent among these people though of defending the whistleblower aspects of Snowden’s actions while downplaying his questionable behavior in other countries.
But look, here’s the thing with all this, and I’m sorry for all the setup to get to this. The story’s going to keep morphing and Snowden supporters are going to continue to modify their lines to fit the current narrative. There’s no accountability for such people giving half-baked opinions and mawkish support for a man who is for the most part inconsistent (see his IRC logs and personal work history) on the matter — no one will call them out later on it.
Journos will turn on or bail on this guy. He’s just a tool to them. Assange has turned into a punchline for the intelligentsia while Manning has turned into the equivalent of those ads on late night TV for abused pets that need healthy homes. I saw one tweet suggest that Snowden is to Greenwald as Manning is to Assange. A pawn in a larger dance.
Turning on Snowden is only slightly worse than ignoring him completely. See Barrett Brown (corporate spying early on), Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe, Mark Klein, and the rest of the whistleblowers and journalists no one has given a fuck about until now. This doesn’t even cover the red flags raised after what happened to Joe Nacchio and the debate around National Security Letters (this link upped by the awesome writer Maria Bustillos).
Thomas Drake, whistleblower
Snowden reminds me of those LulzSec guys before they got caught. Everyone likes the story of the fugitive — it plays well in the media. FUGITIVE AT LARGE! NEW DETAILS, NEXT! In my opinion the LulzSec folks were far more compelling than Snowden’s story: they were directly challenging the international community to cooperate to find them and arrest them — they lived in multiple countries and they had a technical superiority edge at first that must have deeply concerned law enforcement, but they were ultimately undermined, most notably by their leader becoming an informant for the FBI! I can only imagine that LulzSec was a wakeup call for building up more serious capability within intelligence to keep up with blackhats online.
What should be more scary is not how authorities are reacting to Snowden, but how they managed to thoroughly infiltrate Anonymous, WikiLeaks (Sigurdur Thordarson), and even LulzSec — people who were more capable of hiding their digital footprints than most people in society. Given attempts to infiltrate Muslim communities in NYC, running operations to entrap potential jihadists throughout the US, and so on, virtually no organizations seem to be impenetrable to government operations.
Snowden, contrary to his depiction in the press, seems like your typical mixed bag type of person. Contradictory views at different times, inconsistent motivations, full of character flaws. It’s completely up in the air how his story plays out, but I think the easiest thing to conclude is that the guy has always wanted to be where the action is (a feeling I can relate to) and was seemingly raised to believe that nothing is impossible (see his 18X special forces attempt, et al) and that actions speak louder than words (being the figurehead of this NSA leak). I’m interested in the guy too but I agree that the NSA news must be fully integrated into American citizens’ notions of what is going on behind the scenes.
As for Greenwald, the guy is fighting the good fight but is a super-douche (putting him in the panned-theon of Tom Friedman, Umair Haque, Evgeny Morozov, Paul Krugman, Jeff Jarvis) and so even if I’m harsh on him, for the most part it’s been good to watch him speak up for things over the years that people have ignored. But seriously, why do these guys twitter-search their own names for any mentions and feel compelled to talk back? It’s the number one reason I call them Morozlov and Greenlold — so they don’t throw a Twitter fit in a @mention.
It would be alright if this eavesdropping news was somehow a revelation but the bottom line is that people have not been paying attention for the last decade or so. Most importantly, the NSA story has been decontextualized from post-9/11 security mission requirements and solely towards some happy fantasyland where America lives out some high school class teaching of freedom of speech and international role model-setting of a higher moral arc towards justice.
That is to say, there is next to zero intelligent balancing of the issues being discussed in the circles that should be setting the debate for everyone else. The NSA has a pretty clear objective and it’s fairly good at executing that objective: monitoring communications and creating target packages for people who come up on its radar. In an environment where potential enemies don’t line up in formation to attack, basic pragmatism and realistic world view would acknowledge the need for tactical and organizational ability to collect that kind of data.
Furthermore, it would be ludicrous for the US government to not pursue serious (fair trial) charges against Snowden, based solely on the current standing of the law. It has to prevent leaks and it has to protect its intelligence. Why do people act surprised that the US government would be seeking to detain and prosecute the man behind a massive breach of classified information and ensuing media controversy, all while passing through China and Russia?
At the same time, the networking of our data online not only increases the government’s ability to collect, it also increases the abilities of adversaries (say, China) and non-states (hacking groups, organized crime, etc.), so the public needs to be vigilant about its rights to protect its data from those groups.
All of this is within the perfectly rational and justified perception among caring Americans that the NSA’s eavesdropping programs have gone way out of control and pose a threat towards American citizens’ civil liberties.
But you don’t hear this. The decontextualization makes it sound like the NSA is J. Edgar Hoover putting intel hits on everyday Americans for no reason, when in fact it’s more of an intelligence effort to adapt to today’s big data environment — and the NSA will do whatever it is allowed to by those who set policy (Congress), who set legal precedent (Supreme Court), and who actually have skin in the game (military, security, etc.). 9/11 was perceived as a massive failure to many professionals who dedicate their lives to ensuring that it never happens, and they will dedicate the rest of their careers to doing whatever is in their power to try to prevent 9/11 from happening again.
Do you begin to see that there are different interests at play here and that they all have varying degrees of legitimate concerns and readily apparent biases?
The bottom line is that hey, you just found out about this and it’s like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in college and now you’re one of the few initiated who gets what’s really going on in the system man. Enslavement, dude.
Do you know how frustrating it is to listen to people whose opinions came from a BuzzFeed blurb about a Mother Jones article (that cites news from years ago as breaking) and are all the sudden pro-disclosure rules and anti-intelligence apparatus?
Do you know what it’s like to read hit-and-run op-ed pieces about how intelligence agencies continue to fail to find viable targets from the same types of people who laughed at the crowdsourcing effort to find the Boston bombers?
Do you know what it feels like now, after having had my clearance revoked back in the day, during a deployment, because I was blogging honestly (but not giving away OPSEC) about what was going on in Iraq before the Surge and ethnic cleansing and before there were the chilling-effect blog rules in place now that have all but cut off most reports from servicemembers deployed abroad? Let me please hear from kids who skipped out on our last decade of deployments which required leadership of smart, freedom-loving Americans who were lucky enough to not be too busy trying to save what was left of the lives they were clinging on to (which is how lower middle class, the poor, and victims of Katrina spent the last decade). Let me please hear about speaking truth to power from kids who weren’t there, didn’t see it happening, and only found out about it years later because they’re always on the internet. It’s easy to speak out in hindsight or when nothing is at stake for you.
I’ll tell you who gets hurt in this. First of all, the public will put up an outcry over this only so long as it’s in the paper. For that reason I would think Wikileaks is the way it is: shilling for story, content, and control of the narrative. They want to ensure that it stays on Page 1. But really I don’t think much will change because there’s little check on the government to prevent electronic data snooping and very few people actually understand the mechanics behind how it works. Also security concerns will still trump privacy concerns. So the public is going to continue being spied against with few checks or even basic smell tests to see if the government should not be spying on this person or that person. We’ll continue to see bizarre, brief fiascos like Stop and Frisk and CIA-NYPD collaboration to provoke, say, the Muslim community.
[the above is my ITP classmate Atif Ateeq's thesis about bringing context back to Muslims and Arabs who were decontextualized after 9/11]
The behemoth which is the system that allows government and corporate spying will continue almost unabated against citizens around the world, regardless of their affinities. The technical ease is too great and the will to put understandable limits on it by decision-makers is too weak. It’s a cliche in the science fiction world but it’s an easy eventuality. I can only see this disparity in interests increase as tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) continue to get scaled down for easier use by lone wolves (see 3D printing, propagation of extremist material, biohacking, DIY energy devices).
The other people to get hurt will be security people. The narrative of the post-9/11 story for intelligence has been that it took the rest of the blame for Iraq that Dubya didn’t soak up. “The intel was bad,” people remember. But Tenet went along with pushing for Iraq in the end, even though key intel analysts were advising the complete opposite. After that was settled, recommendations were made, particularly in Congress, to boost the concept of fusion centers, which were supposed to prevent stovepiping of intelligence within agencies and to possibly allow for a layered effect of intel analysis where different types of data could be plotted against each other to build out networks of important terrorist individuals. Well, fusion centers ended up costing a lot of money and were for the most part just okay but not terribly productive. Where security is now is that data is now streaming in faster than it can be analyzed, and so systems need to be built to sift through it. And after this scandal, it is likely that checks will be put back in place to make at least some of that data integration difficult again.
In short, I would think that it will be at least a bit more frustrating for analysts to do their jobs and to perhaps prevent another attack on American assets — maybe not even through figuring out a specific plot but by knowing the internal networks of highly capable groups.
To sum up: Americans weren’t paying attention and expect to be briefed on intelligence that they A) don’t care about, B) don’t know anything about, and C) don’t have time for. Americans are acting like a nosy, shitty boss calling in from St. Maarten for a checkup.
Really the debate about NSA stuff should focus squarely on the test to allow for eavesdropping: the court order. Instead of the rubber-stamping of FISA requests which has been standard operating procedure, there should be a stricter, more accountable, more quantifiable test for how analysts (who should be enabled to find oddball connections and sketchy hypotheses) go about getting further approval for eavesdropping. [As a note I should add that someone I respect on Twitter countered my rubber-stamping statement and said that there are stringent tests and quick retractions for requests that have errors in them or that are not valid. So it's not as easy as I made it out to be, but I do believe it's telling as a trend that, according to judicial reports, the end result of rejected requests is near-zero. I defer to an expert though.]
THIS is the fascinating part of the debate. Yes, allow for eavesdropping, but ONLY if there’s a strong case for it that’s demonstrable through evidence. The same it has ALWAYS been. How do we do it? Well, I don’t know, and we need to have very smart people think about solutions. I could say that we allow citizens’ interest reps onto the board but that might give away tactical intelligence. What about algorithms? As I understand it the NSA had attempted to score potential targets using algorithms already. I know people like Morozov would roll their eyes (which is about all they ever do) but algorithms, properly understood for the bias inherent in the creation of any algorithm, could provide a way for multiple interest groups to weigh in on what would constitute a threat or a viable target so that it could be non-specifically applied (read, programmatically) to actual targets so that it could be analyzed later. Right now this system of judges approving anything that passes past their desks is not working, mostly because judges are always going to be supportive of law enforcement efforts, particularly with regard to terrorism. Why would they get in the way of a dedicated law enforcement team?
If Only the Apple Store Sold iFreedom in Spotless White
I really want to go back to that part about the journos turning on Snowden.
I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to deal with the disloyalty and hypocrisy of people on that count. Here are a bunch of people upset that the government is tracking them, even if they had security passwords and encryption and all that. They were upset that an American has to leave his own country to whistleblow on it, which somehow turns the US into East Germany. If only there were networks, projects, and technologies which might allow citizens to return their own privacy and security!
If only there were something like bitcoin to circumvent large-scale banks and payment systems which can block your money from going to online poker, drugs, and anonymous bitcoin transactions! Well, bitcoin did blow up in the news recently, and what did the twitterati and intelligentsia do with it? They laughed at it, said it would never work and was unstable in comparison to the American dollar. They felt it was like throwing your money down the drain.
And okay. If only there were some way to pass information, download movies, files, etc. easily, without having to pay some middleman extra money or to be subject to their licensing rules! Oh, you mean like torrents or napster or whatever else? No way dude, I’m not risking my clearance or well-being for being flagged as a pirate; that’s not as cool as using my walled garden App Store on my locked-in iPhone. Torrents? Peer-to-peer? Well, it’s SLOW. :( And I don’t have time to figure that stuff out.
If only there were anonymized networks so we could use the web as it was originally intended again! Yeah well isn’t Tor for people to sell guns and drugs and child porn? It just sounds kind of shady lol. How about mesh networks where people pool together their internet connections so you can connect to a network no matter where you are? [check out my ITP classmate Sean McIntyre's work on building mesh networks in Brooklyn] Nah, I want my own connection! I need blazing speed to stream my GoT.
Decentralized Social Networking
What is diaspora*? Oh wait, that’s the one with the dead co-founder right? Wow that was rough. But hey diaspora* isn’t as nice as Facebook so I’m not going to switch right now.
The point is that for a community that claims to be for breaking down mechanisms for control by a government that is spying on it, thought-leaders have been shooting down all the grassroots, open source, hacker-built, decentralized products that have sprung up recently.
The contempt people have for all these technologies that would help free them from corporate or government interests? Well, it just makes me think that people aren’t as desirous of freedom as they claim — it reduces technological interest among most people to just another coolness factor. Do you have the latest iPhone? Sorry, I only use Instagram after I deleted my Facebook account (a personal favorite considering Facebook owns Instagram). Macs are for overpaying idiots.
The lowest level of Maslow’s Digital Needs Curve has shit like iPhone, cloud services, gawker, reddit, and whatever else people REALLY want to use daily. I’ve seen fairly savvy journalists on Twitter railing against Obama on his policy against whistleblowers in one tweet while drooling over their new iPhone 5 in the next.
It was all topped off for me seeing the utter contempt from the twitterati and most liberals with the Occupy movement. From its very onset, people who constantly act like they’re for a more democratic and grassroots system, sticking it to the banker-politician complex, etc. would laugh in the face of Occupy while at the same time being drawn to it as some chic “fuck The Man” rebelliousness. People would go visit Zuccotti but always with a curious detachment and ultimately a pointed, knowing critique of how Occupy had no leaders or had too broad a platform or whatever else they would claim as armchair protest organizers. Protestourism.
Occupy had its own problems and the issues that Occupy folks would bring up were some of the most important of the day (money in politics, lack of prosecution for finance industry scammers, and so on) but really it failed because, despite everyone saying it’s a problem, it’s not THAT bad a problem.
It’s not as though the Occupy protesters were dying in the streets from police abuse, malnourishment, or invasion from foreign enemies. We barely see the poor in our day-to-days, let alone see people from the poorer parts of the city protesting. The iconic Occupy protester would be a fairly well-educated person who had life pretty good. Is that person going to be there when the weather turns cold? Or when Occupy gets too dangerous? No.
(more on what I wrote about Occupy: http://blog.benturner.com/2011/10/19/on-occupywallstreet/ )
What has been telling to me as I’ve gotten older is spotting which people will stick up for what they believe and who will disappear when things get less convenient. My main critique with my generation is that it stands up for nothing. Maybe things are good enough that it doesn’t have to? It’s a generation that is against most forms of patriotism (so passé!), against joining the military (don’t be a sheep), against religion (Hitchens and Dawkins are MY gods), against political affiliation (I don’t like boundaries, man), against pretty much any form of outright aligning yourself with any larger organization or cause. Even joining that DC kickball league is a barely acceptable affiliation. We are all lone boats out on the ocean, apparently. Which is fine except the politics of my generation is largely based on liberal socialist ideals for collectivized Wilsonian whatever, health care or taxation etc. I understand the folks who live out in the country and don’t want anyone to come near — but urban liberals are not those people.
I believe at some point in life you have to start standing for something. Maybe it’s in some ways naive or dumb, but it’s important, particularly for men, to have a set of principles and values that are immutable. Shapeshifting and adapting to whatever is hot is something that younger children do as they try to find themselves, and I just think that once you get old enough, you have to be the person defining what’s important in life. Maybe there’s some truth to the argument that Americans in their 30s are the new infantile Americans in their 20s. What does it mean to be American anymore, where borders cease to matter and people switch from city to city with the same standard of living, as part of some cosmopolitan elite ideal? What does it mean when a whistleblower travels to a Chinese surrogate and then to Russia with America’s technical secret goldmine in tow and people are more concerned about the soap opera of a missing man than of a massive foreign policy disaster?
What it says to me is that most people don’t understand the gravity of situations across the world. Poverty reduction has been reduced to feel-good slacktivism, foreign policy has been reduced to Hollywoodish notions of outmoded Cold War era spy games, homeland security has been reduced to comedic Paul Blart-quality bureaucracies.
It just makes me not want to pay attention to more and more people who don’t have experience, who have no skin in the game, who have no cause to stick their necks out for. It increases my willingness to listen to those who are on the ground, who have hammered out any naive notions or ideals of how the world really works, leaving only hard-nosed pragmatism behind.
How Convenience is at Odds with Art
This brings me to a bigger subject: art. I never thought I was going to be an art student, particularly after being in the Army and having a love for business. The quality of the art students I’ve met in terms of their abilities to look past what is useful or what provides an immediate payoff or what seems possible at the time, along with their technical and ambitious abilities to actually carry through with them, I’ve just been so impressed. I still associate most art with projects carried on for no reason in particular and which don’t really make much sense and which seem to take up a lot of unnecessary room. That said, art school is just as expensive as other schools. (this artist wrote a post on why you SHOULDN’T go)
But what I’ve come to feel about art is that what I associate with art is only what has been successful art in the past. The cutting edge art of now and in the future is not going to be seen as accepted, as cool, as mainstream. To understand what the fringes of meaningful art are now is to look not at what will be cool (advertising and design have successfully co-opted that particular game) but to look at what is seen as obscene, weird, disconnected, and offensive. Meaningful art now is not called art: it’s called some variation of the term hacking. Experiment, play, prototype, tool around, whatever.
In school I learned the ITP hacker ethos. The ITP hacker ethos revolves around the 80’s-based mystique contained in phreaking, War Games, Sneakers, Easter Eggs, sleight of hand, Max Headroom, Hackers, etc. Now society seems to think geeks are cool, but the real geeks are the ones who stay glued to the computer, hacking away on some tech that may not even pan out or make sense to anyone outside of a handful of people. The chaos behind the high latency of Tor, or the arms race of pirates and copyright holders through torrents, the idea of darknets: this is the uncomfortable edge of where art is. It’s childish and naive in some areas, it’s foolish and illegal in others, and it’s unproductive and a dead end too. It’s not polished, it’s not beautiful, but what it does is test legal limits, test technical limits, test ways of seeing the world.
Drones. A touchy subject. For ITPers, it’s a mix of unsurpassed American military might, combining speed, surveillance, technology, and intelligence, all of which are core advantages to American power. But it also stands for death, particularly collateral death. It stands for disposition matrices and hitlists and reaching out and touching someone and the disconnect of killer and victim and secret orders signed by the President. Drones are one of the best examples of a conflict between liberal disgust with warfare and conservative Jacksonianism and exertion of power.
So it has been depressing to read about drones because few people fall somewhere between those two extremes. But some people have begun making what I consider to be fine art, and it has not come in the usual form of something beautiful.
James Bridle has an exhibit at the Corcoran on drones. Among other things, this was said about his work:
Bridle realizes that drones are more than the sum of their 3D parts; they are the capillaries of a network, the point at which lines of computer code, political power, and obscured decision-making appear in the physical world. “This is what I’m really interested in at the moment: trying to push this debate back from the fetishization of the drones themselves, back into the computational networks behind them,” he says of his piece “Disposition Matrix,” a computer monitor reeling through a software program Bridle wrote that searches public resources for people who have a connection to drones and a series of volumes printed from the findings of the program, conveniently accompanied by some gloves for museum visitors to don as they flip through the pages. The program is meant to evoke the system and variables that generates an official “kill list.”
This is the greatest form of art for me. Technical understanding of something to the point that you can recontextualize it and link it back to the bigger themes involved.
You should also watch my ITP classmate Josh Begley’s thesis presentation on dronestre.am, his API for accessing info about deaths as a result of drone strikes. Particularly interesting were his remarks on geography being an inescapable reality and thus the increasing importance on mapping blank spots in reality, his interest in that sparked by Trevor Paglen and his “experimental geography”.
Drones as peace advocates discuss them are boring things. A drone today is just a gadget, but what lies behind it is sophisticated blending of GPS, radio comms, cheap parts, remote weaponization, integration of real-time video and control into the commander’s toolkit. Beneath the drone debate was always the intelligence debate, which the public has only now decided it wants to take part in, despite Bradley Manning rotting away in jail and the NSA blooming in size and a witchhunt for whistleblowers within the government. Way to ferret out the main story, armchair analysts.
One of the quieter stories I read about in Wired a while ago was one that has stuck with me for a while. It was a glimpse at UX, Urban eXperiment, a French hacker-collective. Wrote Jon Lackman:
UX is sort of like an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde—confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new—its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.” The group claims to have conducted 15 such covert restorations, often in centuries-old spaces, all over Paris.
Begley’s and Paglen’s interest in the unmapped spaces may coincide with UX’s wishes to find and protect that which has been forgotten. Anonymity can provide security when everyone is too distracted to pay attention.
Why do they care about these places? Kunstmann answers this question with questions of his own. “Do you have plants in your home?” he asks impatiently. “Do you water them every day? Why do you water them? Because,” he goes on, “otherwise they’re ratty little dead things.” That’s why these forgotten cultural icons are important—”because we have access to them, we see them.” Their goal, he says, isn’t necessarily to make all these things function once again. “If we restore a bomb shelter, we’re certainly not hoping for new bombardments so people can go use it again. If we restore an early 20th-century subway station, we don’t imagine Electricité de France will ask us to transform 200,000 volts to 20,000. No, we just want to get as close as possible to a functioning state.”
UX has a simple reason for keeping the sites a secret even after it has finished restoring them: The same anonymity that originally deprived them of caretakers “is paradoxically what’s going to protect them afterward” from looters and graffiti, Kunstmann says. They know they’ll never get to the vast majority of interesting sites that need restoration. Yet, “despite all that, the satisfaction of knowing that some, maybe a tiny fraction, won’t disappear because we’ll have been able to restore them is an extremely great satisfaction.”
Art stolen by UX, on display out of public view, in tunnels
Today’s cutting edge of art is also political, because expression vs. government is a tangible, dangerous battle that we witness daily in various forms. I consider Ai Weiwei to be one of the most daring and genius artists of the day to reach widescale attention, but almost no one has heard of him. I recommend you read this article about him.
All art is political in the sense that all art takes place in the public arena and engages with an already existing ideology. Yet there are times when art becomes dangerously political for both the artist and the viewers who engage with that art. Think of Jacques-Louis David’s involvement in the French Revolution—his individual investment in art following the bloodshed —and his imprisonment during the reign of terror. If it were not for certain sympathisers, David may well have ended up another victim of the guillotine. Goya is another example of an artist who fell foul of government power. There are instances in the 20th century when artists have faced down political power directly. Consider the photomontages of John Heartfield. Heartfield risked his life at times to produce covers for the magazine A/Z, which defied both Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Backpacks spelling out: “She lived happily for seven
years in this world”
As an idea of what he has done, he built a marvel, then disavowed it (the Bird’s Nest), he created a facade of backpacks outside a museum to represent the lost children who died in China’s major earthquake while back. In his words:
The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.
Most poignantly, he was detained and beaten by police in Chengdu after he had gone there to support a local activist Tan Zuoren (who was on trial for helping create a victim database for the aftermath of the earthquake) and snapped this photo of himself with cops in an elevator, which he shared across the internet:
That photo tapped into elusive, seductive themes. Social media, a joke to its trollish inhabitants like Evgeny Morozov (whose skin in the game involves finding a new fellowship at a university to bum around in while writing a book attacking all the people who provided material for it). The Chinese police, a symbol of ham-fisted authority. The artist as a threat (with multiple police surrounding one unarmed artist). Surveillance, cleverly used by Ai Weiwei to take videos of the police who tried to threaten him with video and photos.
It wasn’t being arrested by police that was rebellious or artistic — any fool in the US can get arrested these days just for acting like a jackass, and Ai Weiwei wasn’t even doing anything at the time. It wasn’t some artistic stunt — Ai Weiwei, already known for art, was seeking the truth in recording names of those killed in the earthquake. He…just sought the truth.
The reaction: he survived the altercation and had a choice response for the police.
The tragedy: almost no one knew this had all happened! Even fellow art students. I can barely comprehend this. The disconnect is glaring. You know, I’ve served my time. I’ve reinvented myself to fit in to various communities, to take up their rituals and make them my own, to become a part of those communities, to care for them and to be cared for by them.
Now that I’m out of school, I feel like I’m freed from that need to try to catch up with what other people have done, and instead I should begin to forge my own artistic path, to be okay with creating things that no one understands. My own temptation to believe that I should be trying to convince others has long before died as I realized it is certainly not my talent. My dreams of grandeur have been tempered by failure, by meeting people far more intelligent and wise and wonderful and humanistic and charismatic and insightful than me, and by realizing that the best I can do is get my own affairs enough in order that I will have time to be able to help others — a project I’m still working strenuously on. To these ends, I feel as though my bullshit filters are honed (filtering out the day-to-day nonsense in different industries while selecting the genuinely new and game-changing events) and I’ve become very good at understanding the people who are really pushing things to the edge — and I want to promote and encourage them to continue to contribute the beauty to the world that they so wonderfully create.
I suppose I just wish that people would have a more understanding perspective of the world — understanding peoples’ motivations for doing things, understanding the reasons for why traditions or events came to pass, understanding the chaos as well as the order. What I see is not a lot of understanding, compassion, or sympathy in the world, but a whole lot of laziness. It’s toxic, and it leads to people being able and thinking it only natural to take advantage of others — in a world where we wish and idealize that people would help each other instead.
I also wish that people would understand that when they claim to want to know the truth — whether it’s about government spying or whatever — what they often only want is the drama behind popular exposure of the truth, when perhaps the truth was out there in the open for them to avoid and ignore for years beforehand. A critical look at “truth” involves, most importantly, a critical look at oneself and how much one will put on the line in order to accept that truth.