“It's going to be a big challenge to recognize that the world is shrinking.” This quote comes toward the end of Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei's Human Flow, a documentary built around intuitive contradictions: It's a production of massive scale that, at the same time, is most intent on capturing the small details of the lives affected by the global refugee crisis. Ai understands that his images, of refugees wrapped in glimmering golden thermal blankets and boats invisible in the darkness but for a mass of orange life vests, represent the unfortunate but inescapable iconography of our time.
The director, though, contrasts macro visuals with idiosyncratic vignettes of conversations between himself and the refugees, all meant to shrink our focus down to an intimate level. Ai's images are immaculately picturesque, but he annotates them with text—both polemical and poetic text, a nod to his activism's foundation in the information simultaneity of social media, and as well the common practice of classical Chinese art. Human Flow occupies an intersection of loose conceptual art and emphatic activism, and in its unresolved identity is a profound statement on the nature of dislocation.
I had the chance to sit down with Ai in Manhattan. We discussed the political and aesthetic virtues of Human Flow, as well as Ai's relationship to the directors that make up the Sixth Generation movement in China, and his feelings about his country's continued insistence on censoring its artists.
What I like most about Human Flow is the way your interests as a visual artist inform the huge scale of the images, but you also have really personal moments in the film, in a way that preserves a sense of dignity and individuality. How important was striking the balance of these two things? Or was finding that balance something you didn't consciously think about?
As a filmmaker, and as an experienced artist, you have to always, always be conscious about what you are doing. Am I doing a film? No, I never really wanted to do a film. Am I doing art? No, it's not about art. It's about my personal experience—about my journey to understand who [these people] are; the difference between the people who come from very different religions, [speak] different languages, everything different. And also, in the media people are often depicted as being dangerous, or incomprehensible. But I appreciate every second when I was with them. I had the chance to look at them face to face, to look in their eyes, to sit with them and eat together, and even laugh and joke—a human exchange. The whole idea is to really see humanity in this big, big human flow. You know, 65 million people, even more, are being dislocated, being pushed from their home, and none of them want to leave. They could be very poor, but they don't want to leave.
You did choose film as the preferred expression for this project, and there are a lot of aesthetic choices here. I'm particularly interested in your use of on-screen text. There's a lot of text here, from a lot of different sources: poetry, news headlines, historical information. And sometimes the text is static, while other times it scrolls. I assume that was your choice?
The choice comes from trying to develop a new kind of communication, which, this happens on social media, and also on television: You often have news or contradictory information in an image, or another layer, and it creates some kind of…I wouldn't say poetic…some kind of conflict in the image. Not always comfortable. But I think young people, the younger generation, are very used to coping with that kind of situation, because they always take one look and come away with three pieces of information. We like that kind of disturbance. Also, if you look at a Chinese painting, there's always writing on the side. Even the most expensive paintings collected by emperors, they put seals on them. So, sometimes, one painting will be covered by dozens of collectors' seals and comments and appreciation. I think it's very interesting because of how we appreciate art, and how we give meaning to an image. If we think about Duchamp, his works are very important because of the title. He has this large glass, and normally we'd call it Broken Glass, but the title is A Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. That language gives the work an extremely important meaning. So, we always try to add something, carefully. We're testing the human's capacity for reading, because reading uses a different part of your brain than vision. But they can work together. And also, you know, it's like when people go to the theater, and at the same time eat popcorn!
You say you don't consider yourself a filmmaker, but you have at least—
I'm a little bit more than a filmmaker. I do a lot of visual works, I do verbal communications, and I do social media. I want to push filmmaking a little bit. I always want to make a new language for a visual theater experience.
I want to talk about film because, around the same time that you came back to China from New York [Ai lived in the United States from 1981 to 1993] the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers were starting to make their first films. And that's a period in film history that I'm really interested in.
Please put me in the Seventh Generation.
Okay! But I think you were at least in the Chinese art world at that time, in Beijing, when filmmakers like Wang Xiaoshuai and Zhang Yuan and…
Exactly. So how aware were you of their work at that time?
We'll, I'm a friend of several, and I've watched a few of their films.
I think the filmmakers at that time in China—as well as musicians like Cui Jian—were part of this counterculture movement that feels very isolated to me, to that certain time. And I'm curious why you think that is, why the more subversive art from the time right after Tiananmen seems to have subsided? Even directors like Jia Zhang-ke now seem to make films largely accepted by the Chinese government, and released domestically in the Mainland.
I think that generation grew up in ruins. It's a collapsed condition. But still, you have so much joy when walking in those ruins, trying to imagine what it was, and at the same time you could also have this fun kind of disorder. And finally, they totally collapsed, but there's a little gap there, from after 1989—or actually even before '89. By 1985 there was this this kind of Western spiritual pollution, a time when everything came to China and there was a quite open attitude for a very short time, between '85 and '89, about four years—translations of books came, and people became very liberal, trying to take in Western modern developments in like a day. And also being sexually very open, and everybody learning English. It was like a dream of democracy.
Do you think that was just in big cities like Beijing?
No, it was all over China, because later that spiritual pollution increased. But that really made a generation which would soon become a disaster, because the Party, and their control, crushed the whole movement. And then, after that, there were years of a very depressed condition, with strong censorship, and you can't make any kind of defense of those rights. So, maybe that's the backdrop of that generation. But, of course, you cannot survive that way. You can have some fantasy and dream when you're 15 or 17, but after that, you realize that you have to buy an apartment, you have to move out of your father's apartment. And you have to make a living, and in China, in the whole industry, in order to make a living you have to work for the state. Filmmaking at that time was still not as cheap as today. Today, everybody has a camera and can make a film. I think that was really a breaking point: when digital film became possible. Because, before that, the machine, the technique, the cost, and the institution—this was always how films were being made.
What's the availability of your filmography at this point? Because you made a lot of films through the 2000s…
I made a lot of documentaries, but those films are very liberal in their form. One film could be 150 hours about Beijing. One is Chuang'an Boulevard, which is just one line [of road], and every 15 meters we take just a one-minute shot, like taking a photo but one minute, letting the camera just run for a minute. That film is about 10 hours. Another film is a conceptual landscape of Beijing, before the [2008 Beijing Summer] Olympics. It was after the Olympics that I became really political. After 2005, I got on the internet, and, daily, I would spend time on there, and my confrontation with the state ideology became…intensified. Only because of the argument—you know, like if you and your wife have an argument, the sound gets louder and louder, and you totally forget—I forgot that my condition was very vulnerable and very dangerous. But I did it anyhow. And I did many documentary films that reflect my social activity and political activity. The films we would make we would take a week or a few days to edit it, and then we'd put it on the internet.
Which websites would you put them on?
YouTube would be the only possibility. We used to put them online in China, but they would all be deleted. But at that moment, it would still take a few days to be deleted, and there would be hundreds of people who would watch it, so we were so excited. I thought, “Okay, I can generate a revolution by doing this.” Because any of my articles would have a few hundred thousand people posting it. So that made me completely forget how dangerous that could be. But it really made a very strong impact on me in many ways.
Are you heartened at all by the sense that, in recent years, it feels like the censorship of content has lessened a little bit. One example being that documentary film Under the Dome, which is basically a TED Talk made by a former CCTV employee all about the effects of climate change.
Oh, I know this girl who made that film.
That was a film put online in China and at first it was not censored—and it had enough of an impact that, when it was finally removed, there was enough of an outcry to suggest it might signal a change.
Well, that is not a very good case, because she's very popular, very—
Yeah, or maybe even have some kind of political force behind her. And the film, even though it is serious in parts, it never really touches a fundamental question: What is the cause of this pollution? It doesn't really give a correct understanding about the role China plays in this global condition. It's not only China that plays a role. It's the United States, and all other developed nations. It's more predictable that China would sacrifice its environment.
Do you have any feelings of optimism about the direction that China is going in, in terms of censorship? Or do you feel like China is stuck?
Completely stuck. And why they're stuck is very easy to understand: Because the leadership and the power is still worried about legitimacy. They have ruled over this nation over 80 years and still don't trust their own people. And also there's only one party, and the party cannot really take any kind of challenge. So it's become a struggle, with its own aesthetics of surviving. Nobody's threatening them. They are so powerful. They have 80 million people who are party members. They cannot continue this way, it's not possible.
You're in the U.S. right now, and obviously you've spent a lot of time here. When people complain about politics here, do you think to yourself, “Those people don't understand how bad a political situation can really be”? Or do you think that everyone has the right to complain within their own context?
Everybody has the right to complain, but that doesn't mean the complaint is necessarily the right complaint. Here, I don't think the complaints are profound enough. People complain only because they lost a balance, but they accept capitalism, and this kind of ideology. There's very little intellectual analysis about how this system affects our human progression.