Ai Weiwei: UGC, art, and (possibly) change

I’ve learned that embarking on a new user-generated content (UGC) project requires a healthy dose of trepidation. Without the right subject matter, marketing, and solicitation, the project sputters. It can be heartbreaking; you expect to start an endless, legendary conversation, and instead feel as though you’re chucking a message in a bottle into a vast sea.

With this in mind, I was floored by the UGC session that I caught on my last day at Museums and the Web 2011, in which the interactive media team at Tate Modern presented their paper on the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit, on view in the museum’s massive turbine hall.

The premise of the in-exhibit video recording booth is relatively simple: ask the artist a question, or answer one of his own. Yet it is both a technological and logistical achievement to pull this off, and it centers around an artist who is willing to make himself available to participate. Here, he answers a visitor’s question about why he chose to use sunflower seeds in the installation:

This is where the Tate’s exhibit takes an interesting — and unplanned — turn. As most of us know by now, Weiwei was arrested recently, perhaps for the very reasons he is such a compelling artist: his availability, his outspokenness, and his willingness to share his life and beliefs with millions. These assets that have engaged so many people — on a busy weekend, Tate Modern receives over 500 video submissions — have also made Ai Weiwei an unpopular figure among Chinese authorities.

Earlier in the conference, I was out to dinner with a handful of other attendees, one of whom is an art history professor who asked whether, in this information age when online collections are readily available, we still needed museums. Two glasses of wine in, I responded with a vehement “yes,” that artists still feel compelled to create, and the museum space constantly feeds that drive.

Although I still feel I’m right, I was thinking about it the wrong way. Up until his arrest, Ai Weiwei was constantly documenting not only his work but what was happening to him, blogging, tweeting, and making us a part of his art by soliciting our stories. Despite the brutish thumb of authority, he defines a modern artist, one that museums around the world are now desperately trying to liberate. The success of the Tate’s UGC component both validates this artistry and motivates a groundswell of support for his release.

More on Ai Weiwei from FRONTLINE

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