Artist, dissident and all around Renaissance man Ai Weiwei talked with SPIEGEL about the authorities who monitor his every movement in a description reading like something out of a dystopian novel. Here’s a preview:
[…] SPIEGEL: Why are you put under such manic surveillance? There are more than a dozen cameras around your house
Ai: There’s a unit, I think it’s called “Office 608,” which follows people with certain categories and degrees of surveillance. I am sure I am in the top one. They don’t just tap my telephone, check my computer and install their cameras everywhere — they’re even after me when I’m walking in the park with my son.
[…] A year ago, I got a bit aggressive and pulled the camera off one of them. I took out the memory card and asked him if he was a police officer. He said “No.” Then why are you following me and constantly photographing me? He said, “No, I never did.” I said, “OK, go back to your boss and tell him I want to talk to him. And if you keep on following me, then you should be a bit more careful and make sure that I don’t notice.” I was really curious to see what he had on that memory card […] I was shocked because he had photographed the restaurant I had eaten in the previous day from all angles: every room, the cash till, the corridor, the entrance from every angle, every table. I asked myself: Gosh, why do they have to go to so much trouble? Then there were photos of my driver, first of him sitting on a park bench, then a portrait from the front, a portrait from the back, his shoes, from the left, from the right, then me again, then my stroller. […]
SPIEGEL: Is it possible to get used to being watched so closely and permanently?
Ai: The way I do it is very simple: When I counted that they had installed 15 cameras around my house, I decided to install four further cameras inside my home — one in my bedroom, one at my desk and so on. I thought: If you want to know everything about me, then I’ll broadcast and show everything to you. Then I went live with the webcams […] It didn’t take long for them to call and ask me to please turn off the cameras. I said: “You want to know what I’m doing. Hundreds of thousands of others want to know as well and have been following me for days.” It became a big event. They said: “Please turn off the cameras.” I asked them if it was a suggestion or an order — it turned out it was an order. Then I switched them off. […]
SPIEGEL: How do these limitations affect your work?
Ai: It doesn’t really affect me because I work and live in the Internet. My virtual life has become my real life. I was reminded of that again a few days ago: I asked my colleagues to print out everything I’ve written on Twitter in the past three years. […]
SPIEGEL: Your government persecutes you and hasn’t let you travel abroad for almost three years — why doesn’t it switch off your Twitter account?
Ai: I don’t know that there’s a clear reason. The relationship between the Chinese government and me is like a Cold War.