Ai Weiwei & Assange: Agency, Courage, and Fear

13 10 2011

Ai Weiwei was just named by ArtReview as the most powerful figure in the art world.  Last year he was ranked 13, which was the highest for any artist in 2010.

It also marks a significant moment in recognizing the importance of socially engaged art.

Mark Rappolt, editor of ArtReview, said the choice of Ai by a panel of experts was not a political one.

“Of course it’s something about political activism that runs through the list this year,” he told Reuters.

“But I think it’s more about expanding the concept of art that’s not really solely contained in the privileged space of museums and galleries. It’s about how it engages with the world.

“It’s expanding the possibilities of what you can do with art and as an artist how you can use your voice.”

The sentiment resonates with what’s going on right now at Creative Time in New York, in their annual conference, promoted by a video that features messages such as this:

Jeremy Deller quote:  I went from being an artist that makes things to being an artist that makes things happen.

Creative Time's Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from the Last 20 Years

To mark this occasion, we’re sharing an exchange between Ai Weiwei and Julian Assange that occurred as part of an extended conversation between Assange and Hans Ulrich Obrist in e-flux journal, where Obrist invited a number of prominent artists to submit questions.

Ai Weiwei: As a perfect example of how individuals can act against collective power, such as the state, what do you think about the future of this trend? How can individuals use their power to question state power?

JA: There are many technical and practical responses to this question. But this is just not a matter of things that may be useful or practical to do. I think a certain philosophical attitude is needed. And it is this attitude that then pulls together the practical considerations that must be part of a realization of that attitude. So, we encourage the people and our supporters to understand that courage is contagious. It’s a practical reality that, for example, most revolutions start in public squares. Why is that? It’s not like there are more people in a public square. You still have the same number of people in the population, whether they are in their homes, in the street, or in the public square. But in a public square, if there are a few courageous people, everyone else in the public square can see the courage of those individuals and it starts to spread.

Assange continues, discussing agency, courage, and fear:

JA: I think first it’s necessary to have an understanding that one is either a participant in history or a victim of it, and that there is no other option. It is actually not possible to remove oneself from history, because of the nature of economic interaction, and the nature of intellectual interaction. Hence, it is not possible to break oneself off. Once you have this understanding that you can either be a victim of history or a participant, I say that because no one wants to be a victim, one must therefore be a participant, and in being a participant, the most important thing to understand is that your behavior affects other people’s behavior, and your courage will inspire actions. On the other hand, a lack of courage will suppress them. There’s another view I have about how to frame how one proceeds. Many people say, oh, Julian, you’re being very courageous with what you’re doing, and therefore you must be fearless. I say, no, I feel fear just like any other person. In fact, people who don’t feel fear are dangerous to themselves and to others. Fear is a very good and important instinct to have. Courage is not the absence of fear. On the contrary, courage is the intellectual mastery of fear. Courage is all about understanding—understanding what the terrain is, and understanding your own abilities and limits in order to thereby plot a safe and effective path through the terrain. It is not about foolishly and fearlessly engaging an opponent. It’s about understanding first, and then carefully and decisively engaging the opponent.

Ai Weiwei also discussed his relationship with fear, in Alison Klayman’s documentary for Frontline, Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei:

I’m so fearful.  That’s not fearless.  I’m more fearful than other people maybe, then I act more brave because I know the danger is really there.

If you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.

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