Concordia University

Dr. Alice Ming Wai Jim is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at Concordia University. Her main fields of research are in new media arts and contemporary Asian and Asian Canadian art from a global perspective. Current projects include an essay on new media arts and human rights in China; a book manuscript on the ways in which Hong Kong has been represented in urban-themed international art exhibitions from 1997 to 2007 (research funded by FQRSC); and a SSRHC-funded study on the recent history of contemporary Chinese art exhibitions in relation to transnational urbanism, participatory media and issues of cultural representation.

The Twitter of China: Ai Weiwei, Social Media and Human Rights Activism

A symbol of the struggle for human rights, renowned artist, architect and committed political blogger Ai Weiwei has become a global figure despite being still forbidden to travel outside of China. This paper argues Ai’s high profile has often detracted from a deeper understanding of his art practice and human rights activism as linked to the phenomenon of social media and ubiquity of mobile technologies, maintaining that political efficacy in contemporary art lies in the critical grasp of multiplying global media techniques and modes of hybridization in art and popular culture. Ai had already embraced the Internet and social media since 2005, finding Twitter to be most suitable when his personal blog was shut down. According to him, “China has made its very foundation the blockading of information, surveillance, and the limiting of free expression. The surveillance and limitations are endlessly being augmented. But at the same time, the technical prowess of the netizens and their demands for freedom of expression are growing in resistance to each blockage. This kind of stalemate over the Chinese Internet has cultivated a great new power interested in expressive methods and potential technologies.” Starting with his recent YouTube remix of PSY’s Gangnam Style, this paper argues the key to assessing Ai’s artworks in recent years and his defiant acts of political indignation is to recognize their keen attentiveness and effective deployment of the Internet as a platform of social change. Ai has achieved this particularly through the phenomenon of the Internet meme, image-based or intentional misspellings difficult to censor. What is it about the aggregate space between the global art world and the precarious nature of blogospheres that has allowed Ai to advocate for human rights from within the Chinese nation-state?