Ai Weiwei is an architect, sculptor, filmmaker, and activist-artist from China. He is more importantly known for being the artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium during the Olympics, and after his subsequent arrest in 2011, for his constant criticism of the Chinese Government. Raqs Media Collective is an artist group based out of Delhi who describe themselves as agent provocateurs who work also as an artists and curators. This blog post attempts a conversation between Ai’s Weiwei-isms and various quotes from writings by Raqs.
My favorite word? It’s “act”. - Ai Weiwei (1)
At his studio FAKE Design, Ai Weiwei stages acts on the internet, he writes extensive blogs, subverts ideology through architecture, edits movies, compiles mobile-phone camera images into visual narratives for publications, and is eager to initiate political change, as though weeding through a system brought about by the cultural revolution.
The practice across the Great Wall by the three constituents of the Raqs Media Collective - Monica Narula, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Jeebesh Bagchi, in Delhi, arises from conversations, from writing in each other’s notebooks, deliberating in interventions of film, theatre, publications, and architectural installations from a media laboratory called Sarai. Sarai - derived from caravanserai - an inn for travellers traversing medieval India, is where they meet other collaborators, discussants and friends with whom, through research, they form arguments of socio-political critique, illustrated by cultural practice.
The camera is both witness and actor. Photography, especially in the archive, is a form of theatre. - Raqs Media Collective (2)
‘So Sorry’ (2011) is a film in which Ai Weiwei trains his camera on the police. He travels to Chengdu to investigate the deaths of children during the Sichuan earthquake who were trapped in shoddily built schools. Here he provokes the police, while confronting those who attacked him at night in the hotel in Chengdu. A still taken in the hotel’s elevator mirror with the help of a lighter is the only illustration in the book ‘Weiwei-isms’ (2012).
Weiwei’s provocations are deliberate and stage-planned to edge the police into enacting a role on camera they would prefer to reserve from an audience, but is often reality. The film is a sequel to ‘Disturbing the Peace’, 2009, with which it shares footage and clippings. One begins to realise how narration of a story arises from editing and arranging video clips, from an archive created out of Weiwei’s constant filming of life through various kinds of camera - mobile phone cameras, to more sophisticated ones. The truth emerges from the manipulation and orchestrating of images to expose the theater of the police.
What does a photographic archive do to an artist when she enters the archive? What does the artist make of the accumulation of history that the archive represents? What work can contemporary art do in the archive? In some senses, the question of the performance of the ontological status of the photographic trace in an archive is made most apparent when contemporary art meets the archival photograph. The archive shapes facts. It produces the narrative and the story that the facts are made to tell. In other words, the archive, by its sequential, cross-indexed and jussive ordering of notings and data, can also render a figment of the imagination into a fact, or at least blur the borders of fact and fiction. One possible task for the artist in the archive then is to prise the archived fact back into the realm of interpretation, through hermeneutic procedures that privilege the imagination. The drama of the photograph in the archive consists in this tension between the claim to truth and the ruses necessary to the making and contestation of this claim. Between these two instants lies an entire history of the performance of a claim to truth. The photograph is a chronicle of that history, and our role as artists today, is not to repeat that claim but to subject it to an imaginative trial. - Raqs Media Collective (3)
Raqs assemble bookcases, armchairs with embroidered texts ('A Different Gravity', 2012), design carpets that usher discussion supported by videos ('The Great Bare Mat & Constellation', 2012), or investigate 19th-century photographs by itinerant photographers, refuting the supposed scientific truth the photographs claim ('Scene at Sikanderbagh', 2011). This refusal turns into theatre, through collaborations with actors.
The performative act Weiwei brings into his films, may make a conversation with the practice of Raqs. Raqs began as filmmakers, dwelling in the possibilities that arose with multimedia in India during the 1990s. They may be one of the true inheritors, within the subcontinent, of the kind of practice pioneered by the Fluxus group. Ai Weiwei initially trained as a filmmaker who then studied art and design in New York. Through his studio, a collaborative of many people, he assembles objects that he often designs. The production is an openly political act - seen in the making of one hundred-million ceramic sunflower seeds for Tate’s Turbine Hall (2010), or architectural interventions using children’s backpacks for his show ‘So Sorry’ at Haus der Kunst in Munich (2009).
Weiwei uses the name ‘FAKE Design’ as a wry joke on the material culture of China, often naming his numerous initiatives with the prefix: ‘Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd’, ‘The Fake Case’, ‘aiweiwei.fake’. This pseudo, imitative, copied, unoriginal prefix, is like a critique of an outward reality, as though pointing to some truth that lies outside the permitted frame.
Raqs alternatively sees piracy as a social leveler.
The culture industry, by insisting on stricter anti-piracy laws and instituting harsher protocols of encryption, is at best buying itself some time. Their ships have been struck, and are sinking. For the foreseeable future, the pirates will be hoisting their standards, stowing away the “nothings” of culture to their grey market archipelagos of the global information commons that mark the map of the high seas of data with their volcanic peaks of electronic abundance. - Raqs Media Collective (4)
Piracy appears as among the first cues of a changing social order, how piracy initiated the end of the slave trade and wealth redistribution questioning the might of colonial naval power. Fake goods find networks and markets that allow their existence to continue. The piracy of intellectual property circumvents the laws put in place to stem it. The culture industry, according to Raqs, is a victim to this phenomenon, its resistance is futile, and would eventually lead to its re-organization.
In their two-screen video ‘The Capital of Accumulation’ (2010), they seek answers to a received history of Capital by searching for the grave of Rosa Luxembourg in Berlin, and by linking three cities - Bombay, Berlin and Warsaw - through an imagined industrial past. As Raqs uses the ability to know the future while placing themselves on the timeline of the past. From this vantage point, they re-imagine the future, and through this bring out a critique of socio-political or cultural contemporaneity. For instance, the inherent humour in discussing the India-Pakistan dispute through an alternative history. Or as Raqs stands in solidarity with the immigrants in a street market in an abandoned stadium. These immigrants circumvent international borders and create networks of traffic that bring in fake goods creating seepages in a global system. This seepage transmigrates global borders into cities where they battle immigration control and anti-piracy squads. The immigrants subsidise life in these cities, create access to objects of material culture, like handbags; their migration transforms their cultural and political pasts into academic discussions in the host city, they guarantee an internationalism. This layered perspective of a socio-political critique put forth by their practice is where Raqs diverges from Ai Weiwei.
My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people. Ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anybody else. I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention. *To protect the right of expression is the central part of an artist’s activity. . . In China many essential rights are lacking, and I wanted to remind people of this. *
Being an artist is more of a mindset, a way of seeing things; it is no longer so much about producing something. *
It became like a symbolic thing, to be “an artist.” After Duchamp, I realized that being an artist is more about a lifestyle and attitude than producing some product. *
I think all aesthetic judgments—all the aesthetic choices we are making—are moral choices. They cannot escape the moral dimension in the broader sense. It has
to relate to the philosophical understanding of who we are and how so-called “art and culture” functions in today’s world. *
I am very much interested in the so-called useless object. I mean, it takes perfect craftsmanship, beautiful material carefully measured and crafted, but at the same time it’s really useless.
-Ai Weiwei (5)
Using the timber salvaged from the debris of dismantled Qing-era temples, Weiwei places them together into a sculptural formation that creates the map of China, and by dropping the Ming Vase, or by painting them, he uses humour to draw scorn on the foolishness of the Chinese state in the past and their present acts of erasure as they emerge from the aftermath of Mao’s rule, a cultural statement that is always readable as autobiographical, probably referring to his own family - his father the poet Ai Qing’ s rehabilitation in the 1970s when Weiwei returned to Beijing to join the first post-cultural revolution avant garde artist group the ‘Five Stars’.
Raqs, for their intervention at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, fix a woolen carpet made by Bulgarian master weavers that depicts the Great Bear constellation of stars, under Han Chinese bronze bears borrowed from the museum collection, traditionally used to weigh down carpets used by philosophers while debating. This ability to dwell across history and use objects, texts and images from the past to present arguments in contemporaneity reflects on the philosophical attitude Raqs and Weiwei don in their practice. Raqs initiates a discussion through their use while Weiwei instead states a material critique by his assemblage. This puts them both within a certain lineage of art making that comes closest to the temperament of the Fluxus movement.
There is no revolution like the Communist revolution. You simply burn all the books, kill all of the thinking people and use the poor proletariat to create a very simple benchmark to gauge social change. *
I definitely know people who are shameless enough to give up basic values. I see this kind of art, and when I see it I feel ashamed. In China they treat art as some form of decoration, a self-indulgence. It is pretending to be art. It looks like art. It sells like art. But it is really a piece of shit. *
We see plenty of artistic work that reflects superficial social conditions, but very little work that questions fundamental values.
- Ai Weiwei (6)
It is a very good time to rethink the relationship between art, politics, ethics and knowledge. The ‘archival turn’ that a lot of art making is currently in the process of undertaking emphasizes the crucial role that a deeper philosophical engagement with questions of memory, amnesia, recall and re-inscription will play from now on. This is a time when the distinctions between art and research, between scholarly play and playful scholarship will gradually cease to matter. - Raqs Media Collective (7)
Weiwei’s wish for Beijing, is a city with more chaos. He began an architectural practice in the city and his buildings came to inhabit many public spaces. He was the artistic consultant to Herzog & de Mueron for the Beijing National Stadium or the ‘Bird’s Nest’ and along with them successfully designed a housing project in Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia, with a hundred international architects. The project never materialised as he began to criticise the commissioning of the ‘Birds Nest’ as the arrogance of a state erasing its misdeeds through the Olympics. Supposed irregularities in taxes for his design company saw him under arrest for 81 days.
The ‘Cyber Mohalla Hub’ is a two-storey structure designed by Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Muller for a project initiated at Sarai, that acts as an architectural catalyst to blogs, research, documentation and visual outputs that deal with Delhi’s pattern of urbanisation. Weiwei and Raqs have extensive presence through blogs, social networks and websites that create a platform for dissemination and public discourse. Weiwei has had a history of engaging with public spaces through his architectural projects: like the ‘Bird Nest’ which he disowns, or abandons like ‘Ordos’, once they serve the purpose in his practice. Raqs inhabits, in shyer ways, dynamic interventions such as a recent billboard project in Birmingham with clock faces that capture skipped heartbeats. Both practices bother a paranoid State.
Delhi is overwhelmingly a city of migrants. In this giant mixer-grinder of dreams, hallucinations and nightmares, the artist finds herself a natural ingredient, bringing to the city’s obsession with speculation in real and unreal estates, the spice of sightings of tangential territories in the imagination. The artist is the migrant to Delhi who never stops migrating. She remains afloat and adrift, like the suspended particulate matter in Delhi’s air, thickening it, infecting it, infusing it with the buoyancy of many kinds of desire. Meanwhile, the city continues to make room for drifters, shape-shifters and other adventurers. - Raqs Media Collective (8)
1. ‘Weiwei-isms’, Ai Weiwei , Edited by Larry Warsh, Princeton University Press, 2012
2. ‘In the Theatre of Memory: The Work of Contemporary Art in the Photographic Archive’, in Lalit Kala Contemporary #52 (Journal), Photography as Art and Practice in India, 2012
4. ‘Seepage’, Sternberg Press, 2010. A collection of essays and image-text pieces by Raqs Media Collective.
5. ‘Weiwei-isms’, Ai Weiwei, edited by Larry Warsh, Princeton University Press, 2012
7. ‘Off-Modern: A Conversation with Raqs’, with Moinak Biswas, for humanities underground, August 2011
8. Devika Singh and The Raqs Media Collective, for Frieze, issue 148, June-August 2012
9. A History of Infinity and Some Fresh Catastrophes: On Raqs Media Collective’s The Capital of Accumulation | e-flux http://www.e-flux.com/journal/a-history-of-infinity-and-some-fresh-catastrophes-on-raqs-media-collective%e2%80%99s-the-capital-of-accumulation/#.UHZEV6mCF4s.twitter
10. The Flights of the Pink Flamingo or Historiae Sub-Rosae of Capital and the Twentieth Century by Kaushik Bhaumik, in 'Art India', Vol XV, Issue III, Quarter III, 2010
This is a longer version of an article originally written for the magazine TAKE – Sculpture | Issue 10 | Guest edited by Diana Campbell - http://takeonart.wordpress.com/category/issue-10-sculpture/