“The Internet is my life and Twitter is my nation”: Ai Weiwei is Online
Sleek Magazine, 9 March, 2015
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had his passport confiscated in 2011 and is under strict government surveillance. Curator Nadim Samman caught up with the artist in his Beijing hotel for Sleek on the occasion of his commission for the Rare Earth exhibition at TBA21 in Vienna.

Why did you decide to participate in the Rare Earth exhibition?

I found the concept very interesting because it really puts on the table consideration of a material that is so essential to our life. Our lives are so tied to so-called rare earth materials. We don’t overtly sense these materials but they power most of the technology we interact with daily, such as our phones and computers. For most of us, myself included, knowledge of this fact is very limited and even, I should say, naïve. This project has been an opportunity for me to learn more about this subject that is impacting us today, and will continue to do so in the future. Also, China is very involved in rare earth production, controlling over 90 percent of the market. This fact is compelling and it’s important for us to consider the impact of politics on nature in relation to these materials.

And so how does your piece engage with this issue?

To create a work which reflects knowledge and concerns like these is not always easy. You don’t want to directly interpret knowledge. You still have to respect emotions and the daily experience of human beings. I was very interested in the colour factor. Rare earth is mixed with colours to make them brighter or to make them glow at nighttime. I decided to use some kind of fabric and weaving technique because in ancient China, and in the wider world, weaving is related to immediate human need and is also considered a very high level of art. I thought of weaving rare earth materials into a daily towel, the kind of towel we use after showers or baths, or into a large beach towel. Towels are familiar objects which people immediately recognize and associate with daily life. Weaving rare earth into the towels raises the question of what unseen dangers exist in common conditions. It alters our preconceptions.

Rare earth is everywhere around you. It is in almost all the technologies associated with digital culture and the Internet. How important is the Internet to you – to your practice?

The Internet is my life and Twitter is my nation. I always say this. All of my happenings and awareness are associated with the collective, changing knowledge of the Internet. Our information and thinking, even our motivations, are brightened and polished by the billions of people who are using the Internet. Every second that I am asleep, I think I miss a lot. We are in a dream period. All measures of time, distance, and space are altered because of the Internet. This is what is really changing our experience as humans – the exchange of information and freedom of expression.

You are well known for your blogging and your tweeting, but to what extent does the Internet inform your artwork?

I cannot separate the Internet from my art. The more I am involved with the Internet, the more my message is spread and the better communication is. I don’t care what others say on the matter; the Internet is a treasure and a perfect thing for artists. If you really value freedom of speech, if you really care about communicating with ordinary people, with people who don’t really know what art is but have emotions, dreams, and aspirations for better – the Internet is important.

Do you conceive of the Internet as an exhibition space in its own right? Are you interested in creating works that only live online?

To tell you the truth, since 2005 I have spent about eighty percent of my time online. I spend less than ten percent of my time on art, and I have still become an artist. I don’t worry about art. We don’t use the Internet to express art; the Internet is, itself, art. It’s just that many people don’t know how to work with this. They have to learn.

When I look for your work on Baidu or Yahoo in China it is very difficult to access a lot of pages…

Yes. That’s why China has no art. If they cannot accept someone like me on the Internet, if my name cannot be found online here, then what kind of society is this?

Do people have more access to your work if they live in the West, as opposed to China?

Actually, I haven’t been allowed to travel for many years. I only hear people through their expressions. They come to shake my hands and say, “Oh, you’re Weiwei, we know you. You’re so well known in Germany.” Even tourists from Hong Kong or people I would never imagine might recognize me say that. But here it is only young people, those active on the Internet, who will know me. However, it is not even lawful for them to know me because it is not lawful to climb the so-called Great Firewall and look over.

What’s the future of digital culture in China?

China might totally shut off the Internet. The less Internet, the better future China will have – according to them.