The privacy movement and dissent: Art
This is the third blogpost of a series, originally published by EDRi member Bits of Freedom, that explains how the activists of a Berlin-based privacy movement operate, organise, and express dissent. The series is inspired by a thesis by Loes Derks van de Ven, which describes the privacy movement as she encountered it from 2013 to 2015.*
Although there are relatively few privacy movement members involved in the actual process of creating art, it does affect the movement as a whole. Art reflects the movement’s beliefs and is used as a weapon of resistance against injustice.
The two art projects of the privacy movement which will be introduced in this article are Panda to Panda and Anything to Say?. They both share a number of features that belong to activist art in general. One of these features is the way activist art comes into being; the art activists create almost always comes from personal experiences and wants to draw attention to and gain recognition for those experiences. In addition, it problematises authority, domination, and oppression and seeks to alter the current situation. Moreover, activists like their work to evoke emotion and provoke intellectually, and they aim to form a community among those who share a similar aversion to oppression.
Panda to Panda (2015) is part of a larger project called Seven on Seven, a project initiated by Rhizome, the influential platform for new media art affiliated with the New Museum in New York City. Each year, Rhizome matches seven artists with seven technologists. In 2015, one of the pairs Rhizome invited to participate were Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum. The result of their collaboration, Panda to Panda, consists of twenty stuffed pandas from which the stuffing has been replaced with shredded documents that Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras received from Edward Snowden. In addition, a micro SD card with the documents on it has been placed inside each panda. By distributing the pandas to as many places as possible, the pandas function as a “distributed backup” that is difficult to destroy, since that would mean destroying all twenty objects. The project was documented by Ai, who shared the images with his followers on social media. Laura Poitras was invited to film the process and eventually published the film in the online edition of The New York Times.
Panda to Panda is an example of ethico-political subversion, in which authority is undermined in a number of ways. First, the project in its totality is a complaint against government surveillance and state power. As Ai, Appelbaum, and Poitras were working on the project, they continuously filmed each other. With the constant filming they emphasise and visualise the surveillance they are under: while they film each other, they are also watched by the surveillance cameras placed in front of Ai’s studio by the Chinese authorities. There is a constant awareness of always being under watch.
Second, the pandas also have a symbolic meaning. From Appelbaum’s frame of reference, Panda to Panda is a variation on peer-to-peer communication, a means of communication in which there is no hierarchy and that allows all peers to interact in an equal way. This system is seen as a philosophy of egalitarian human interaction on the internet. This reference also materialises the goals of the movement. From Ai’s frame of reference, the pandas satirically reference popular culture: in China, the secret police, the “government spies” that also monitor Ai, are often referred to as pandas.
Anything to Say? A Monument of Courage (2015) is a life-size bronze sculpture by American author Charles Glass and Italian artist Davide Dormino. The sculpture portrays three people: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Bradley Manning (who is now Chelsea Manning). The three each stand on a chair, a fourth chair is left empty. This fourth chair is meant for other individuals to stand on, to enable them to stand with the whistleblowers and freely express themselves. Anything to Say? has its own Twitter account where followers can follow the realisation, unveiling, and journey of the sculpture. The sculpture has never been placed in a typical museum context: it was unveiled at Alexanderplatz in Berlin in and has been travelling since.
An analysis of Anything to Say? demonstrates a number of ways in which art functions to strengthen the privacy movement. Taking a stand and expressing your thoughts does not come naturally to everyone; it takes a certain amount of courage – as the sculpture’s subtitle A Monument of Courage indicates. By inviting individuals to stand on the fourth, empty chair, the sculpture encourages them to do the same as whistleblowers: to step out of their comfort zone and become visible. Young or old, rich or poor, German or not, part of the movement or not: the sculpture gives the audience a reason to connect. Furthermore, here as in the case of Panda to Panda, the sculpture carries out some of the beliefs of the privacy movement, informing individuals within as well as outside of the movement.
Anything to Say? not only highlights the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of information; it also comes from the personal experiences of whistleblowers and it shows great respect for them. It encourages the audience to show the same courage as Assange, Snowden and Manning have shown, but the sculpture in itself is also a sign of gratitude towards them. Furthermore, the sculpture in itself represents movement ideas and values, but by asking members of the audience to stand on the chair and express themselves, it actually practices free speech and thereby practices one of the privacy movement’s aims.
Activist art is a valuable way for the privacy movement to express what it stands for. Although there is only a relatively small group of activists within the movement that actually creates art, it affects the entire movement; it encourages members within the movement, allows them to experience both their own and the group’s strength, and the personal character of the art reinforces the unity within the movement. In the next article of this series, protest as an expression of dissent of the privacy movement will be explored.
The series was originally published by EDRi member Bits of Freedom at https://www.bof.nl/tag/meeting-the-privacy-movement/.
Dissent in the privacy movement: whistleblowing, art and protest (12.07.2017)
The privacy movement and dissent: Whistleblowing (23.08.2017)
(Contribution by Loes Derks van de Ven; Adaptation by Maren Schmid, EDRi intern)
* This research was finalised in 2015 and does not take into account the changes within the movement that have occurred since then.
Andelman, David A. “The Art of Dissent. A Chat with Ai Weiwei.” World Policy Journal 29.3 (2012): 15-21.
Goris, Gie. Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization. Ed. Lieven de Cauter, Ruben de Roo, and Karel Vanhaesebrouck. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2011.
Reed, T.V. The Art of Protest. Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Simonds, Wendy. “Presidential Address: The Art of Activism.” Social Problems 60.1 (2013): 1-26.