Ai Weiwei, Alcatraz, Dissent, and The Limits of Free Speech
The Chinese Dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, has an installation at Alcatraz. I went on Sunday afternoon and the entire experience is a good example in what Thomas Frank famously called The Commodification of Dissent and the Conquest of Cool.
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist who helped work on the Beijing Olympic Games. He is also vocally critical of the Chinese Government and their stance on democracy and human rights and independently investigates government corruption. The Chinese government detained him for just under three months in 2011.
Alcatraz is a ten minute Ferry ride from San Francisco. After some standard safety information, you hear a bit about the history of the Island from its start as a military fortress to keep the English, French, and Russians out of the San Francisco Bay, to its use as a military prison for secessionists during the Civil War to its use as a Federal Prison from 1934-1963 and then the Occupation by Native Americans during the late 1960s and early 1970s. We were told to be on the lookout for the graffiti.
The Aiwei exhibit involved five installations spread through out the island. Three were in the prison factory, called the Industry building. Two were in the main prison.
The first installation was of a large and very colorful Chinese dragon. The dragon was made of several panels and some panels contained quotes on privacy and freedom. There was a quote by Ai Weiwei and a quote by Edward Snowden on how important privacy is for freedom. There was also a quote by an African dissident but I can’t remember who or what the nature of the quote was. I don’t think it was Nelson Mandela but it could have been. My companion for the day is Han Chinese and she told me that Dragons are the ultimate symbol of power and were the symbol of the Emperor in Chinese culture. I guess having a dragon that partially consists of quotes about freedom and privacy is about how freedom and privacy are the ultimate powers and maybe using a dragon is a way of taking away its use as a symbol of state authority. There were also several paper kites of owls in the room. My companion agreed that the kites looked like owls but said she did not know of owls having any significance in Chinese Culture.
The second room was a hall of dissidents. Basically it was portraits of various democracy advocates and whistle blowers done in Legos and on the floor. You walked around the room and looked down on the portraits. It was often hard to read the names as they were done in Legos. Most of the dissidents came from Eastern Europe/Russia, Middle Easter Countries, and Asia (especially Vietnam and China and Tibet). There was also a portrait of Edward Snowden. More on this later.
The third exhibit was unremarkable. It was a large winged creature and you viewed it from the gunner’s gallery where prison guards would watch prisoners as they worked during the day. My companion felt like the symbolism was a bit too strong here.
The remaining exhibits were in the main Prison. Alcatraz is very small. You can do a guided audio tour before seeing the final two exhibits. The audio tour tells you that only 1500 people served time in Alcatraz during its 29 year history as a federal prison. The audio tour was probably more informative about the nature of being a prisoner than Ai Weiwei’s art installations. The guides/narrators were four prison guards and four former prisoners. The tour was interestingly not censored and the former prisoners admit to their crimes. One guy went to Alcatraz on Weapons charges and tells you how he was filled with hate. The tour is also done in a way to make you almost feel like a prisoner. You are told by a narrator (maybe one of the former guards) about how to move through the prison in rather brusque tones. There were sections of the prison called Times Square, North Michigan Avenue, and other places on the outside world. One prisoner recalled how you could hear parties from the San Francisco Yacht Club especially on New Year’s Even and how lonely it was to hear girls laughing. They talked about riots over being served the same food over and over again and about random murders with improvised weapons and what it was like to hear a shiv go into some guys back. It makes a popping sound apparently.
The final two installations took place in A-block and the Hospital Wing. The A-block was used to hold conscientious objectors during WWI but was used during the Federal Prison days as places where prisoners could write letters and legal briefs on typewriters. The cells had music and poetry composed in prison being pumped through them. All of it composed by political prisoners. Mainly African and Asian though there was one string piece by a Jewish composer who was held in Hitler’s concentration camps.
The final exhibit was in the Hospital Wing and it was a bathtub, toilet and sink overflowing with little white and probably plastic flowers. I guess this symbolizes beauty and life springing up from ruins.
The hospital wing also contains the cell of Robert “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud. Despite the portrait given in the Burt Lancaster movie, Robert Stroud was not a gentle man. He was cruel and mean until the end. He was a pimp and murderer in Alaska. He spent most of his time at Leavenworth but was transferred to Alcatraz after killing a guard at Leavenworth. He was already a pretty old guy when he murdered the guard. The inmates who remembered him on the audio tour described him as sociopathic, brilliant, suicidal, murderous, and a hell-raiser who liked to rattle everyone’s cages whether they were a guard or a fellow inmate. He spent 11 of his 17 years in the Alcatraz Hospital Wing due to illness before being transferred to the Prison Hospital in Missouri for three years before dying. Interestingly, being in the hospital gave him a large cell especially compared to the others.
After all this you exit to the gift shop. Before the gift shop was a poster talking about how the U.S. holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners and a bit about prison and criminal justice reform. In the giftshop, you could buy your own Ai Weiwei bag of Legos’ along with t-shirts, sweatshirts, windbreakers, various documentaries, books, and movies about life at Alcatraz.
The most striking thing to me was the inclusion of Edward Snowden in the Lego dissident hall. There is a sort of limitation and paradox of free speech here. The news freely and often reports on Edward Snowden and the various doings of the NSA that he managed to reveal. Citizen Four won the documentary for best picture, the National Parks Service is allowing a Chinese dissident artist to stage an exhibition on freedom at a former prison. Yet the NSA still is recording tons of data against everyone and seems to show no signs of stopping or reforming. People still go through security theatre to board plans. Nothing seems to deescalate. The War on Some People Who Use Some Drugs is still going strong and civil forfeiture is still a thing despite numerous high profile stories. There seems to be some way in which free speech can render reform toothless. You can criticize and expose all you want but reform takes a long time or never happens at all. Though obviously free speech is much better than a society without free speech.
The selling of little bags of Ai Weiwei Legos was also a bit odd. I am not sure why Ai Weiwei choose to use Legos as a medium for his dissident portraits except that it is potentially easy to assemble move, fix, repair, and break up. But selling a little bag of them in the giftshop just seems to be a way in which political anger is taken, mollified, and turned into another bit of profit. Museums do need money to run and I don’ mind the gift shop at most art exhibits but there was something about selling Legos and t-shirts that depressed me here especially because Ai Weiwei is an explicitly political artist.
Perhaps reform is just something that takes decades. Maybe we need to wait until the old guard retires and new people can run for office. Maybe there just is not enough interest in NSA or Prison reform except in a few quarters.