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The Art of Dissent By Laura Poitras

Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum are artists, journalists, dissidents, polymaths — and targets. Their respective governments, China and the United States, monitor their every move. They have been detained and interrogated. Ai cannot leave China, and Appelbaum is advised not to return to the United States. They are separated from their families. Ai has been imprisoned and beaten by the police. Yet each continues his work and speaks out against government wrongdoing.

In April, Ai and Appelbaum met in Beijing to collaborate on an art project commissioned by Rhizome and the New Museum in New York. As a filmmaker, and as a target of state surveillance myself, I am deeply interested in the way being watched and recorded affects how we act, and how watching the watchers, or counter-surveillance, can shift power. I was asked to film their project.

During the encounter, Ai and Appelbaum continually filmed and photographed each other. Between their cameras and mine, we created a zone of hyper-surveillance. Almost everything was documented. Just outside Ai’s studio hung surveillance cameras installed by the Chinese government.

The art project the pair made, “Panda to Panda,” was not about surveillance. It was about secrets. They stuffed cuddly toy panda bears with public, shredded N.S.A. documents that were originally given to me and Glenn Greenwald two years ago in Hong Kong by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Inside each panda, Ai and Appelbaum placed a micro SD memory card containing a digital backup of the previously published documents. Continue reading the main story Recent Comments Bob Dass June 22, 2015

Brilliant! Zeya June 22, 2015

"Creativity takes courage." -- Matisse dairubo June 11, 2015

Excellent work. Thanks to everyone involved.

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The project’s title, “Panda to Panda,” is the synthesis of two terms created by dissident cultures. The slang term for the secret police in China is “panda,” which is a censorship-evading Mandarin homonym: “national security” sounds like “national treasure,” a.k.a. the panda. “Panda to Panda” also refers to peer-to-peer communication (P2P), a method of decentralized networking and a philosophy of egalitarian human interaction on the Internet.

Like the red lanterns Ai hung under every surveillance camera the government installed outside his studio, “Panda to Panda” playfully acknowledges and rejects state power.



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