The protest for detained artist Ai Weiwei this Sunday was addle-brained, confused, and confusing — but ultimately important, promising, and worth the journey. In my quick estimation, maybe 150 to 200 people showed up to protest the Chinese Consulate (sadly, not "thousands," as the Daily News reported it), dragging chairs along the side of the street to take part in an artistic tableau and show their solidarity with Ai as part of an international day of art protest called by Creative Time.
Simultaneous protests were staged around the world. According to the Los Angeles Times, 40 people turned out in Los Angeles. The Facebook page for the event brought news of smaller, but spirited, protests in places from San Francisco and Stockholm to Dublin and Barcelona. The Guardian reported that in Berlin some 200 protesters sat silently for Ai Weiwei. The most meaningful action seemed to be in Hong Kong, where 150 pro-Ai protesters tussled with with police, and one person was reportedly detained.
In New York, the police worked carefully to separate the demonstration from the Chinese Consulate, cordoning us across the street in a park, doing their best (as the NYPD usually does) to emphasize the futility of even purely symbolic street protest. The crowd consisted of a ragtag but good-spirited bunch of mainly arts types, though there was also a vocal and largely separate contingent from the China Democratic Party. I was seated on my chair — which we were asked to bring in reference to Ai's "1,001 Chairs" performance at Documenta in 2007 — next to some young Chinese expats who had heard about the protest on Facebook, and brought print-outs of pro-Ai Weiwei graphics in Chinese and English. They didn't really know him as an artist; they were there to support the cause of democracy in China.
Creative Time's Anne Pasternak was in full organizing mode, negotiating with the cops and trying to coordinate the largely passive protesters sitting on their chairs. After a bit, there was an attempt to stage a photo in front of the Chinese Consulate with people on chairs, nixed by the police. Finally, everyone who had brought seats — which were mainly of the disposable or foldable varieties — was asked to mass together for a picture just at the edge of the park. Alanna Heiss had brought one of the original chairs from Ai Weiwei's performance, which was placed front and center, symbolically empty to mark a place for the absent artist in the final photo.
The whole event had an air of frustrated pageantry. A "chair-in" is an indubitably creative form of protest, and art-community supporters of Ai wanted to do something symbolically meaningful, to reflect his identity as an artist. Still, there are aspects of good old-fashioned non-artistic protest that might have made this a better experience. Some speakers would have been nice, for one thing, to give some political center to the day's events. As it was, this symbolic action ended up feeling, well, purely symbolic, as I am sure the Chinese government is counting on it to be.
Creative Time is to be commended for putting out the call for the Sunday demonstrations, and initiating an action that touched people across the globe. Globally at least, the event probably topped its target of rallying "1,001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei." But let's be honest: 1,001 is a fairly modest goal in terms of numbers of people to mobilize. If you are going to plan a protest, you should actually organize a protest and not a photo op. You should put some muscle into reaching out to other groups who might be interested — the Chinese gentlemen next to me proved that there is the potential to do so, and one of the differences between organizing an art event and a protest is that it actually matters if numbers of non-art people show up. If you half-ass it, you end up turning supporters out only to make them feel disempowered and small rather than empowered and ready to continue.
I have noticed in the discussion of Ai Weiwei a good deal of what you could call "social media fetishism." For instance, the fine Guggenheim-spearheaded petition for Ai declares that, "We have launched this online petition to our collective millions of Facebook fans and Twitter followers. By using Ai Weiwei's favored medium of 'social sculpture,' we hope to hasten the release of our visionary friend" — as if getting people talking on Twitter was going to do the job. Similarly, the main effort to promote Sunday's protest seems to have been through a single, disorganized Facebook page, which didn't even break out the individual places to protest. Social media is a tool for organizing; it does not organize things for you.
At the demonstration, Pasternak told the crowd that her goal was to keep Ai's story in the newspapers. But I think people felt — I know I felt — that we should be organizing for something more than just bad press for the Chinese government. At one point on Sunday, a guy in a fur coat and a pink sombrero stood up and declared that we should all boycott the "Beijing Art Fair" — he might have meant either mean Art Beijing or the China International Gallery Exhibition, but neither are exactly juicy targets, and both attract mainly Beijing participants. For the moment, the most promising political pressure point seems to be in Germany, where the culture ministry's collaboration in opening an "Art of Enlightenment" show at the new National Museum of China on the eve of Ai's arrest has become something of a political embarrassment.
Within China, the situation only seems to be getting worse. The authorities are massing a case against Ai Weiwei, step by step, while waging a PR campaign through state media to impugn the artist's character — plagiarism! bigamy! pornography! — and combing his tax records for discrepancies that could be used to take him down. According to the Guardian, one of Ai's lawyers, Liu Xiaoyuan, has been missing since Thursday. Just before he vanished, he posted a message to a microblogging service saying he was being "followed by identified people" — truly chilling final words. The contrast between these dire developments and the haphazard feel of the protest on Sunday makes palpable a simple fact: Creative protest is fine, but protest that is only a matter of the creative community talking to itself is not going to be serious enough to go the distance.
And yet, at the end of the day, none of this means that Sunday wasn't valuable. Art folk can be cynical about protest, and I would hate to feed this cynicism. I am happy that people came out and honored to have been a part of this event, for all the messiness of it. Mobilizing is a habit that people will need to get into if they want to make a difference — even if a bunch of other habits will have to be broken to make the effort truly effective. Maybe this protest wasn't big or well-coordinated enough to truly rattle the Chinese authorities. But on the other hand, somewhere behind China's Great Firewall, there are no doubt a few souls who got word that people turned out across the globe in their support, and maybe that gives them a little strength in the midst of a bad situation. That's important, and it's enough as a start.
For images from the "1,001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei" protest in New York, click on the slide show at the left.