p.p1 revolutionary uprisings do, however in an objectified form.

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Part One:
Political Art, Public Intervention and the Internet

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Public intervention as an artistic medium was a seminal product of the 1960’s and 70’s era of contemporary art for artists seeking to create works which address social and political concerns. The nature of the public intervention is defined as artworks which interact with existing structures, both physical structure and/or sociopolitical structure, through the disruption of the state of normality. Through this disruption the artworks are able to highlight and illustrate a need and desire for change as they almost become a symbol for general unrest and dissatisfaction. By upsetting the physical equilibrium of a public space in order to draw a viewer’s attention towards issues or controversies of concern, the artworks can act in a similar way to how occupy protests and revolutionary uprisings do, however in an objectified form. They pose statements and raise hugely important questions aimed towards equally as giant targets; politicians, governments, corporations, sectors of society, etc. The work’s pronounced presence in public space makes these questions hard to ignore. In today’s world, this is now combined with an abundant army of share-happy viewers and pedestrians, armed and equipped with cameras and smartphones as their weapons, resulting in these questions reaching the far corners of the globe via the vast networks of social media feeds.

Chinese contemporary art activist Ai Weiwei’s latest collection of public interventions, Good Fences Make Good Neighbours, 2017, is an overwhelmingly gigantic series of up to 300 site-specific installations, scattered citywide across New York’s concrete landscape. Integrated into the city’s infrastructure, the works range from grandiose large-scale cage-like structures to smaller-scale lamppost banners featuring portrait photographs of prominent immigrants and refugees throughout history. The site-specific series of artworks aim to challenge the mounting political tensions in relation to the recent rise of the right-wing opposition against migration in the United States; Trump’s attempted ‘Muslim Ban’ and promise to “build a great, great wall on their southern border” (D. Trump, 2016), to keep out hispanic immigrants travelling through the US-Mexico border. The aesthetics and functions for many of the works throughout this series are centralised around themes of obstruction; gates, fences, and walls, highlighting the constraints that these borders pose on immigrants and refugees.

“Of course I hate fences, any kind of fences… it stops people, it separates people and it makes so many lives so difficult,” Weiwei comments on notions of separation in an interview for The New York Times. “We should really destroy all the fences, all the walls, and all the senses trying to stop our imagination, our freedom of speech, and our wills to make communication to understand each other” (A. Weiwei, 2017)

One of the more notable works from the series, Arch, is an approximately eleven-metre-tall stainless steel cage installed beneath the arch of the Washington Square Park monument. The shape of the cage echoes that of the arch encasing it, whilst the rigid arrangement of the vertical bars is pierced in it’s centre by a mirror-lined, soft form of a silhouette of two people who appear to be strolling through the erected structure. This installation contains a direct reference to an artwork by highly influential French-American artist Marcel Duchamp, entitled Door for Gradiva, for André Breton’s 1937 La Galerie Gradiva opening in Paris, in which he designed the entrance to the gallery by incising the  exact same silhouette into the centre of it’s frosted glass doors. Breton’s naming of the gallery – and subsequently of the the Duchamp artwork – is after the heroine Gradiva, from German poet Wilhelm Jensen’s 1902 novel of the same name. Breton himself refers to Gradiva as “she who advances” and sees “the beauty of tomorrow – still hidden from most people” (A.Breton, P. Haralambidou, Marcel Duchamp and the Architecture of Desire, 2013, p.116). French poet and one of the founding fathers of the surrealist movement Paul Éluard describes Gradiva as “the woman whose glance pierces walls” (P. Éluard, B. Fer, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism, 1993, p. 235). Duchamp’s  silhouette is of Gradiva and her lover effortlessly striding arm-in-arm through the solid glass barricade. The door suggests at the unavoidable  inevitability of human movement, migration and exodus in spite of any obstacles and hindrances put in place. By appropriating Duchamp’s artwork, Weiwei references and implements the ideas originally constituted within it, reforming and re-contextualising them to suit the circumstances of the current sociopolitical climate in today’s United States, achieved through the installations design and placement in the heart of Lower Manhattan. Weiwei’s work invites the viewer to walk within Gradiva’s casted shadow, the giant central divide of the structure  which punctures through the towering steel bars. Perhaps it’s intention is to prompt you to see through the means and desires of creating separation and reflect on the notions of freedom and movement.

Ai Weiwei has been successful in establishing and solidifying the presence of his message by saturating the streets of New York with an extensive array of public interventions, making his perspectives on political issues practically inescapable. Weiwei often uses public intervention as a medium because he is aware of the power residing in the hands of the viewer; a passerby uses their smartphone to document and share images of the installations, allowing Weiwei’s message to spread onto thousands of news feeds across the globe. The incredibly politically nature of his artworks and the subversive ideologies that they accommodate can mean works like Arch thrive on (somewhat) censorship-free information sharing platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and any other forms of social media. Since the city-wide insertion of Weiwei’s installations in October, the hashtag ‘#goodfencesmakegoodneighbours’ has been posted and reposted over 6,300 times on Instagram. He embraces the Internet’s ability to transform into a global stage, acting as a virtual plinth for his works and his ideas. “I started to write and I realised that my post has been repasted and retweeted over 200,000 times, just overnight. I realised, this is so powerful,” he says while speaking on his first tweet during an interview at the Hirshhorn Museum, “so I said, can you just give me 30 days, I can make a revolution” (A. Weiwei, 2017). The interactive characteristic of the Internet empowers the viewer with the ability to collaborate through sharing, reacting and commenting, expanding on the notion of what public intervention is, through the creation of a new type of online public participatory art. The works can act as catalysts and begin talking points entirely focused on the relevant themes, inviting discussions in comment sections and opening up dialogues to the public. Weiwei understands and capitalises on the idea that the virtual world is a space of equal significance to that of the real world in regards to the residence of political art. The purpose of the profuse public presence of the New York installations is to allow for this collaboration to take place. Consequently, the ambitions of Weiwei’s installations are only fulfilled once the participation of the viewer has occurred through sharing, reacting and commenting, further spreading the artist’s political agendas.

Part Two:
The Spectacle: Illusion, Commodification & Alienation

Although Weiwei is fond of using the Internet as a tool to broaden the capabilities of his practice, it’s possible his understanding of the influence of the platform is generally romanticised. The following argument will illustrate how and why the Internet could pose potential problems for Weiwei’s interests, highlighting particular issues which question the validity of the online as a viable stage for political art. By informing my points with philosophical theory, this essay will attempt to argue that the complication could perhaps lie with one of Weiwei’s greatest assets; the viewer. Ultimately focusing on how sustained consumption of mass media and the Internet influences how the viewer is able to absorb and respond to political artworks.

French filmmaker, philosopher and Marxist critical theorist, Guy Debord, provides an alternate perspective on the impact of extensive forms of mass media upon civilisation in his 1967 text Society of The Spectacle (abbreviated SoTS). Within this he conceives and develops the concept of the ‘spectacle’, understood in very rudimental terms as general mass media, or perhaps the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; television, film, news, advertising, celebrity etc. This comprehension, however, is rather two-dimensional as Debord implies over a series of 221 short theses that the spectacle is also inclusive of mass media’s socio-economic influence on the functionality of society. In example, Debord suggests at the spectacle’s correspondence to the economy through the rephrasing of the initial statement in Karl Marx’s Das Capital, 1867; 
“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.” (K. Marx, Das Capital, 1867, p.27)
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” (G. Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 1967, p.7)
By doing so SoTS intends to directly revise Marx’s ideas on commodity fetishism and update them in order to adhere to the contemporary consumerist culture of Debord’s time. SoTS indicates that modern society now fetishises the consumption of media as well as the material commodity. Or rather, we fetishise the ideologies within the media that we are consuming. Film, television and advertising present to us an idealistic model of how our lives could and should look like, which prompts us to obtain products which allow us to achieve this model; for instance, the influence of the fashion industry on international beauty standards promotes the purchasing of cosmetics. Furthermore, Debord explains that “the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (G. Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 1967, p.7). Essentially, social communication and interaction between individuals, as well as preconceived notions of social conventions, are perpetuated and governed by forms of mass media through it’s consumption. Therefore the spectacle is more accurately described as a social instrument created and used by capitalism with the intent to pacify and control the actions of the masses.

Debord’s spectacle appeared individually in an array of different forms throughout the various types of media existent during his time. However, we are now provided with a platform which is able to accommodate the ingestion of all forms of consumable media in existence. Perhaps the Internet and social media are in fact the most authentic incarnations and embodiments of the spectacle to date, allowing every aspect of Debord’s spectacle to manifest within a single place. The underlying effects of the spectacle on society have only but intensified with the creation of the Internet, as well as the increased integration of new technologies into every aspect of daily life; smartphones, tablets, laptops, smartwatches; products which provide sustained access to consumable media on a regular basis. But how specifically, in terms of Debord’s theory, does the Internet influence the viewer? 

The effect occurs over a series of stages:

Debord states that “fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at” (G. Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 1967, p.7). The spectacle of the Internet constructs an illusion, a faux-world around us by using images, as well as implementing characteristics of the real world, to attempt to resemble reality. As a society we are obviously aware that the images of the world we are looking at are digital, however the “pseudo-world” of the Internet is able to simultaneously situate itself as part of reality through it’s disposition in mainstream culture. When we come into this world we are not given the opportunity to decide whether or not we want to make use of this tool, it is expected of us. “The spectacle is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production.” (G. Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 1967, p.8). The Internet has become a necessary part of our world and integral to the way we function within our society; most professions call for it’s use and the majority of our social interaction is carried out via the online. This necessity has resulted in the Internet growing to become a dominant means for experiencing real world encounters.

As Debord states in an earlier quote, “everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (G. Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 1967, p.7), meaning our way of life, which is lived through the utilisation of this “pseudo-world,” is nothing but an illusion of living. The “pseudo-world” is so well constructed to the point where I can live my life without ever having to leave the house; I can spend hours of my day aimlessly scrolling through seemingly bottomless Facebook news feeds, keeping up to date on lives of friends and world news; I can order tonight’s dinner right to my doorstep; I can explore the world through Instagram and use Google Images and Maps as my window; I can even find a date for lunch next week while I’m sat on the toilet swiping through an endless sea of strangers. The practicality of contemporary technology is indeed beneficial, however it has potential to completely orchestrate our behaviour, causing all forms of interaction to become reduced to a series of swipes, taps and clicks. Social media organisations, namely Facebook and Instagram, transform our thoughts, beliefs and emotions into valued assets, viewing our posts and statements as acquirable capital. Geert Lovink comments on this notion in his text What Is the Social in Social Media?, from a collection of essays entitled E-Flux Journal: The Internet Does Not Exist; “Twitter goes for the entire spectre of life when it asks, “What’s happening?” Everything, even the tiniest info spark provided by the online public is (potentially) relevant, ready to be earmarked as viral or trending, destined to be data-mined and, one stored, ready to be combined with other details. These devices of capture are totally indifferent to the content of what people say – who cares about your views? That’s network relativism: in the end it’s all just data, their data, ready to be mined, recombined, and flogged off” (G. Lovink, What Is the Social in Social Media?, 2015, p.179). Human socialisation has now evolved into a sequence of commodity exchanges, the profits of which land in the pockets of the massive global social media companies.

Debord suggests that this reduction of human interaction by the spectacle results in the alienation of the individual. “The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification,” Debord writes, “the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation” (G. Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 1967, p.7). Continually, he states that “the reigning economic system is a vicious cycle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation,” (G. Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 1967, p.15). The Internet was created with the intent of providing global and instantaneous communication, yet this communication only appears to resemble real socialisation. The required implementation of the virtual spectacle separates the viewer from not only reality, but from an understanding of how to operate in reality. 

It is at this point where the influence of the Internet affects the viewer’s reception of political media. “In the course of this development, all community and all critical awareness have disintegrated…” (G. Debord, Society of The Spectacle, 1967, p.14). It is not so much that society has become so distracted by the ubiquitous abundance of consumable media to the point where we don’t recognise issues when they arise, it’s more the fact that society has become so fragmented to the point where we are no longer equipped with the means of enforcing political change when it’s required. As a collective community we are fully capable of identifying political concerns and forming opinions in response to those transgressions, however the extent of our political action seems to be limited to commenting, sharing and posting on social media about pertinent issues. When online political unrest actually grows to a point where it is able to manifest itself in the real world, it inevitably breaks down due to the inadequacy of the individuals involved.

Part Three:
The Weakness of the Individual

British contemporary filmmaker, Adam Curtis, is able to provide current-day examples of this in his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, which essentially explores the real life repercussions of the “pseudo-world” on society. Curtis opens his documentary by stating; 

“This film will tell the story of how we got to this strange place. It is about how, over the past 40 years, politicians, financiers and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. Instead, they constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring.” (A. Curtis, HyperNormalisation, 2016).

HyperNormalisation details the events of 2011 Arab Spring; a movement of revolutionary political uprisings and demonstrations against the oppressive authoritarian regimes, prolific throughout numerous countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa; namely Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. The initial cause for the political uprisings was a general dissatisfaction amongst the younger generations, whom had developed aspirations of securing a more optimistic economic future through the democratisation of their native governments. In his film, Curtis intends to focus particularly on the instrumental role of social media on the emergence of the revolution, briefly recognising the Internet’s potential to act as a fertile ground for the development of political ideologies. “It seemed like a spontaneous uprising but the internet had played a key role in organising the groups. One of the main activists was an Egyptian computer engineer called Wael Ghonim. He worked for Google in Egypt but he had also set up the Facebook site that played the key role in organising the first protests” (A. Curtis, HyperNormalisation, 2016). However, he then proceeds to detail the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings; the collapse of government and descent into chaos in Libya following the displacement of Muammar Gaddafi; the authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood party seizing power in Egypt; civil wars erupting in Syria and Yemen, triggering the rise of the Islamic State. 

So what caused the uprisings to ultimately fail? “Social media had helped to bring people together in Tahrir square. But once there, the Internet gave no clue as to what kind of new society they could create in Egypt,” Curtis explains, “the Occupy camps had become trapped in endless meetings. And it became clear that there was a terrible confusion at the heart of the movement. The radicals had believed that if they could create a new way of organising people then a new society would emerge. But what they did not have was a picture of what that society would be like, a vision of the future.” (A. Curtis, HyperNormalisation, 2016). While it’s true that political unrest originating from social media use can eventually amalgamate to real world action in the forms of protests and demonstrations, our everlasting consumption of virtual media as our dominant means of experiencing the world has made us so separated from reality that we have become deprived of an understanding of how to effectively administer a sustainable political change.


Part Four:
The Power of the Image, and the Influence of Television on the Vietnam War

The importance of an online presence as a form of free speech is paramount to Weiwei. The artist’s origin and upbringing in Communist China has undoubtedly had an influence on his desire to speak freely on pertinent topics through online communication. Since circa 2009, popular social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter have been blocked by the Chinese government as part of it’s official media policy, out of fear that the platforms provide a space for opposing political ideologies to manifest. ‘Virality’ is what terrifies the Chinese government the most; the idea that individuals possess the ability to create a post with the potential to spread to millions of people overnight, harbouring principles which could destabilise the Chinese Communist Party and provoke an army of dissidents to embark on a political uprising.


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