Lessons from Ai Wei Wei, Vandana Shiva, the Yes Men and Glenn Greenwald on creativity and privacy

I met with Ai Wei Wei, China’s most controversial artist, at his studio in Beijing in November 2014.

Lizzie Cole with Ai Wei Wei in Beijing. Appropriately, the Fake New York Times produced by the Yes Men, Steve Lambert, Scott Beibin and a cast of thousands made an appearance.

Lizzie Cole with Ai Wei Wei in Beijing. Appropriately, the Fake New York Times produced by the Yes Men, Steve Lambert, Scott Beibin and a cast of thousands made an appearance.

We debated whether it was possible to nourish creativity and revolutionize education in China by creating communities where people have support doing what they really love.

Mitch Altman, inventor and organizer of the visit, goes around the world doing just that by setting up hackerspaces.

Ai Wei Wei responded,

“With no individual freedom, where does creativity come from? There is no passion, no joy, no sense of purpose. There’s no reward for being creative.”

 

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Ai Wei Wei said that, even though we were hosted by well respected tech school in Beijing, “Every university is under communist control. Even in kindergarten, there is a representative from the communist party in the class. They watch everything, every word. The basic idea of education is to produce a product that is safe and controllable.”

Wei Wei had lots of opportunity to contemplate imprisonment and surveillance. Arrested, beaten by police and detained for months without charge in 2011, his passport is still held by the Chinese government.

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The door to 258 FAKE (Ai Wei Wei’s studio) is adorned with an image of Ai Wei Wei’s brain scan taken after being beaten by the police.

Ai Wei Wei’s perspective – “With no individual freedom, where does creativity come from?” – resonates deeply with the work I’ve done recently. Some of the people I care about most face personal and professional repercussions and threats for their activism.

Days before leaving for China, Evil Twin Booking and the Concordia Student Union hosted a fundraiser with Glenn Greenwald, journalist who broke many stories on the NSA’s surveillance of private citizens.

Despite facing repercussions for his work, Glenn continues to speak out on mass surveillance.

In a recent interview, he laid out why privacy matters:

“We interact with other human beings as social animals, and live part of our lives in the public eye — that’s crucial — that’s why if you put someone in solitary confinement for 23 and a half hours a day like we do in U.S. prisons, it’s a form of torture. And it makes people go insane, because we need, as part of our human functioning, to be seen by other human beings and to be perceived by them and understood through the eyes of other people. But equally important to who we are is a realm where we can be free of those judgments, of people watching us.”

Ai Wei Wei said that youth in China avoid philosophical conversations. “The culture is dead. People have no hope.”

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According to Glenn:

“The reason it is so crucial is that it is only in that state that we are free to do the things that other human beings would condemn us for doing. We can be free of shame and guilt and embarrassment; it’s where creativity resides, it is where dissent to an orthodoxy can thrive. A human being who lives in a world where he thinks he is always being watched is a human being who makes choices not as a free individual but as someone who is trying to conform to what is expected and demanded of them. And you lose a huge part of your individual freedom when you lose your private realm. Politically that is why tyranny loves surveillance, because it breeds conformity. It means people will only do that which they want other people to know they’re doing — in other words, nothing that is deviant or dissenting or disruptive. It breeds orthodoxy.”

As Vandana Shiva, environmental activist, food justice activist and eco-feminist, continues to speak out against land grabs and GMOs, she has come under attack by the increasingly desperate biotech industry.

Vandana will be on a campus tour in 2015, declared the Year of Soil.

Her message for the Year of Soil is a celebration of life and abundance in the world we are sowing seed by seed, and a call to celebrate the connections between Earth and ourselves. In her campus visits, this will take the form of opportunities to facilitate mutual learning.

When the Yes Men learned that paranoid and criminal corporate titans including Dow Chemical were spying on them and other environmental activists, they reacted by growing the movement.

Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are giving away their secrets in a series of presentations and workshops on campus.

You, too, can learn Yes-Men-style techniques for launching high profile actions that bring media attention and policy changes against the worst corporations and worst people in the universe.

(Their third feature film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, opens in theaters this summer).

We have a few dates open in Vandana Shiva’s October 2015 schedule.

Get in touch with Lizzie and Scott at info [ at ] eviltwinbooking.com to chat about dates and details.

Yayness!