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Apr 06, 2015 9:54AM

Ai Weiwei And Olafur Eliasson On Achieving Freedom Through The Internet For Oyster #106

"Social media is not just a tool for communication but is itself democracy and freedom."

By transforming the Earth's only natural satellite into a breathing dreamscape, Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson have unleashed an interactive creative space where the power of the internet can be praised, prettified and, of course, posted about. 'Moon' is a place of ultimate connectivity, its decorative surface an active tribute to collaboration, creative commitment, and personal freedom.

Two years on Weiwei and Olafur are still mooning and rotating messages via an internet connection that has provided infinite global access and changed the very nature of what it means to be human. From behind their respective screens the pair discuss our current connectivity climate and its mobilising potential.

Zac Bayly: Do you think the internet has made us more free?
Ai Weiwei: I think that the internet has not only made us freer but has changed the very nature of what it means to be a human. The internet has provided total possibilities for an individual to exercise one's mind, creating an entirely new platform for expression, and at the same time has helped us overcome restrictions against freedom. Issues such as distance, time and space have become minimised due to the internet's ability to extend us beyond our physical boundaries — I am not allowed to leave my country, but I can have this discussion with you.
Olafur Eliasson: Absolutely. There's no denying that the possibilities of connectivity and communication offered by the internet have enabled a liberating flow of ideas across political and social boundaries. This freedom has, I believe, great significance on the level of turning thinking into doing. It used to be that if you wanted to spread an idea you were limited by your access to the means of publication and production, and often these were located in centres of power. If you were at the periphery you were marginalised. The internet, to a certain extent, has eroded these barriers between centre and periphery, local and global.

ZB: On 'Moon' there are many examples of toilet humour, penises and senseless doodles. Do you think people value their freedom and make good use of their opportunities to express themselves freely?
AW: Freedom is not an abstract word. It doesn't only come from the technology or the platform. There is an inner need for freedom. This relates to who people are and how they want others to see them. I don't think those examples on 'Moon' are abusive. I have no problem with people using those words or expressions. Freedom isn't something that is holy or sacred. To push one's language or behaviour into difficult areas is important in challenging the very notion of freedom. Who is going to define what is and isn't proper? People have to be able to express themselves how they want, even if it's offensive or silly to others. Without struggle, freedom is meaningless.
OE: Living in a country with a strong tradition of freedom of speech — such as Denmark, for example — we sometimes take our freedoms for granted. Things have changed somewhat, it's true: first through Kurt Westergaard's Muhammad drawings in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and the protests around the world that it caused; and more recently of course the shocking events in Paris with Charlie Hebdo. I think what created such a wave of sympathy here in January was us realising that freedom of speech is not a given, but a right to be defended. But there is also the danger that we fail to take responsibility for what we say and how it meets the world. What I mean by this is that words carry not only abstract meaning — they also physically shape the world, play a role in creating reality. In the discussion of freedom of speech there is an ideological position that ignores the power of words and the fact that a word's meaning is not absolute but exists somewhere between the mouth of the speaker and the ear of the listener.

OE: Ai Weiwei, how do you define power?
AW: Power is to make an impact and to alter the direction of something, to cause a change of state. As an artist power is in creating forms, which express an original concept or reflect a state of mind. Power is successfully expressing an idea through a language that is convincing and logical.
I think the power of language works in two ways: One way is through rationality and logic, through a common, agreed-upon understanding. This is a philosophical power. This way works toward rational conclusions in a dispute. Another way is through something that goes beyond rationality and logic. This realm we tend to call emotion, sensitivity or artistic expression. This type of power goes beyond clear definition and tends to arrive before rationality.
To exercise any kind of power also requires a clear understanding of that power. Often power can come from a sense of powerlessness or fragility. It doesn't belong to any one person and it's not a fixed state, but one of variance and negotiation. To exercise it irresponsibly could have consequences. Power can quickly disappear. In reality we see people seek power but also get destroyed by the very same thing.

OE: You use social media a lot. Why?
AW: Social media is the most democratic practice humans have ever created for themselves. It's born from a thousand years of struggle in the belief that there are common values to be shared amongst humanity. It comes from the belief that there should be a democratic platform to discuss these concerns, despite limits such as one's background or existing power structures. No matter one's nationality, religion or socioeconomic background we can discuss these important issues. Social media and the internet mean liberation — it is the great potential for the world to examine existing concerns and make effective arguments for change. Social media is not just a tool for communication but is itself democracy and freedom. The medium is the message. That's why I love it.

OE: Does the globalised world inspire faith in the future?
AW: I think, willingly or not, we are closer together and have a clearer understanding of each other. A globalised world has accelerated the process of joining together humanity and fostering closer bonds between different people. I think globalisation will make the world a safer and friendlier space. A globalised world is inevitable. This is the result of progressive social development and it is a new starting point for humanity. Everyone has to recognise its potential and adjust to this new condition.

Photography: Eric Gregory Powell
Creative Direction: Ai Weiwei
Introduction: Anna Shapiro
Interview: Zac Bayly