Movies that Matter 2012 II – Ai Weiwei: Making Matter Move

I am very happy that there are people like the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei (for more information, you might visit his profile on The second film I watched at the 2012 Movies that Matter Festival, Alison Klayman‘s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2011), follows his work.

A ‘parrhesiast’

Ai Weiwei is a classical example of what the Greeks in ancient times referred to as a ‘parrhesiast’. This denotes a person who ‘courageously speaks the truth’. By most of his art, Ai Weiwei endangers his own life by calling our attention to all sorts of deplorable situations in China. He comes across as fearless, but admits being scared with many of his actions.

For a long time, he managed to keep his balance on the ‘razor’s edge’. He seemed to get away with a good deal more than other Chinese dissidents. However, in early 2011, he was arrested for 81 days. Since then, many of his basic freedoms have been taken from him. In spite of this, his motto remains ‘never retreat, retweet’. If you and your browser read Chinese, you can follow him as @aiww on Twitter.

Going government’s work

A good deal of his work deals with ‘showing the unshown’. An impressive example is his work about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed around 90.000. This included thousands of children, to a great extent due to the poor construction of school buildings. One of Ai’s works consisted of creating a horrendously long list of all the children that died. It covered an entire wall of his office.

On top of that, he invited families to send him voice recordings of the names of their children. For an exhibition at the Munch Haus der Kunst, he covered an enormous wall with 7.000 schoolbags. The image read: ‘she lived happily for seven years in this world’. One commentator in the film says that he is doing the work that government should have done.

Publicising the self

His contribution is not appreciated. At some point, policemen break into a hotel room in which he is staying. He receives a serious blow to the head, for which he is eventually operated. Fortunately, he managed to take a picture of the event, just before being hit. He uploads it to Twitter, where is goes viral. His own case becomes a central node in portraying the misconduct of government and police. The pictures of his face after operation, and the occasional middle finger, are symbolic for the suffering many others.

Making things public

Image of crash investigation in Latour’s introduction

The term ‘making things public’ is often used as a colloquial description of publicising, of showing the unshown. The French philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-) has given a twist to this term. He first started this in his introduction to the catalogue of the 2005 exhibition Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy at ZKM in Karlsruhe. First of all, he focuses on the ‘thing’ that is made public. Often we are hardly aware of the role of material objects in creating public awareness, popular debate and democratic processes. Particularly in the case of art this is a major flaw. The long list of names, the voice recordings, the school bags, the images of his assault, all play a role in a much broader process.

John Dewey

The second element of Latour’s ‘twist’ is what it means to make something ‘public’. To make this clear, Latour refers to the notion of ‘the public’, which John Dewey (1859-1952) presented in his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems. A public is a group of people that is confronted with the negative consequences of something that is beyond their control. A public might organise actions to turn the situation for the better. Latour argues that such ‘publics’ often evolve around ‘things’ or ‘matter’. For example, a hazardous crossing in a domestic area can turn into a ‘matter of concern’, as Latour calls it.

Making matter move

I would say that a lot of Ai Wei Wei’s work can be described as making ‘matters of concern’. Given the setting of the Movies that Matter Festival, perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of ‘matters that matter’. An important idea in Latour’s philosophy, is that ‘things’ or ‘nonhumans’ should also be regarded  actors. Normally, this privilege is reserved for people by modern philosophers. Latour shows that some ‘things’ are more influential than some people. He defines an actor as ‘that was was made to act by others’. To act is always a collective process. It takes more than just humans.

The film shows clearly how the pieces of art that Ai Wei Wei creates can move people. They are actors that are ‘made to act’ by Ai, his workshop assistants, a bunch of tools, thousands of years of Chinese history and the billion of Chinese now living.Together, they turn ‘matters of concern’ into ‘matters that move’.

A public of sunflower seeds?

Exhibition at Tate Modern

One of Ai’s most acclaimed works was his 2010 exhibition of a 100 million sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London. The sheer volume of seeds becomes even more impressive when you get to know that they are hand-painted pieces of porcelain. Sadly, the exhibition was changed when all the walking turned out to produce porcelain dusts that are harmful to people with asthma. It became a ‘matter of concern’, in its museum context. This piece of art created an unexpected public of its own.

Exhibition at De Pont

I went to see a smaller version of the exhibition in Museum de Pont in Tilburg, the Netherlands, a week ago. This ‘matter of concern’ has some very unfortunate side-effects. It looses all its playful seriousness. The seeds are ‘squared in’, and are constantly guarded. There is a one-meter-distance norm.

Karl Marx is said to have asked: ‘How can you have a revolution if you can’t get people to walk on the grass’. This piece of art is made to be tread upon. What are we supposed to do when we are no allowed? I wish I had had the courage to defy the guards, take off my shoes, and run barefoot across the sunflower seeds. I think Ai Weiwei would have.

Movies that Matter 2012 I – Bitter seeds, bitter questions?

Yesterday was the first day of the annual Movies that Matter Festival in the Hague, the Netherlands. It was the beginning of  a week-long programme of films and debates on human rights issues. I attended Micha Peled‘s new film Bitter Seeds. It is the third installation of his globalization trilogy, also featuring Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town (2001) and China Blue (2005).

The new film focuses on the suicide wave among Indian farmers. The challenge of keeping their families alive is immense. As a result of this, one farmer ends his life every 30 minutes. One while reading this blog, three while watching Bitter Seeds.

As in his previous films, Peled succeeds in presenting a compelling, personal story. The film follows Manjusha, a college student, in her efforts of providing journalistic coverage of the circumstances of the villagers in her surroundings. Peled is there at every step of the way, following the entire process from planting cotton seeds to selling the produce on the local market. It feels as if you could smell the soil, and feel the softness of the cotton on your skin.

A story of immunity?

Meet Bacillus thuringiensis

The film unfolds the connection between the suicides and the introduction of genetically modified (GM) seeds, by the US-based corporation Monsanto.

Meet the mealybug

This story reminded me of the work of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (1947-). The notion of immunity is important in his latest books, as I noted in earlier posts. Monsanto claims that its genetically modified seeds make cotton ‘immune’ for attacks by certain insects. This is achieved by modifying the seeds with the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium. Nevertheless, such Bt cotton is not resistant against the mealybug. This requires additional treatment with chemical pesticides, which are typically applied without any safety precautions. The film shows how the spray is dripping down on the farmer’s bare feet. Despite all this hard labour, many crops get infected and fail to produce. The pesticide market in the Indian village is also dominated by Monsanto products, as the film shows. Before the invasion of Bt seeds, cow dung was used for pest control, a much cheaper and organic alternative.

Immunity and destruction

Industrialised production

The problem is bigger than that, however. Cotton production as envisaged by corporations like Monsanto seems to be only viable in an industrialised setup. It would require much larger farms, mechanisation of work and crop rotation. This implies the complete modernisation, and effectively,  the ‘creative destruction‘ of traditional cotton production as a way of life (for a similar example see my earlier post on the documentary Garbage Dreams). Whatever your opinion on such developments, it seems that such a choice should not be made by American corporations.

The immunity of communities?

Traditional cotton production

The suicide wave is also related to India’s prevailing social system. The film focuses on one aspect: the dowry that is traditionally paid at weddings by the father of the bride. This system has existed for centuries. According to the film, it is no longer sustainable now that the costs of cotton production have increased with the introduction of genetically modified seeds. Fathers can no longer ‘afford’ to have daughters. Despair over outstanding debts is the main cause of suicide. It seems that the introduction of a seed that is not as ‘immune’ as it was supposed to be, is also messing with the ‘immunity’ of families and the social system as a whole.

Due to the complete take-over of the cotton seed market by Monsanto, farmers can no longer protect themselves. Attempts to bring back the seeds that preceded genetic modification fail, as the film shows. There are small scale initiatives to introduce organic farming to a few Indian villages, however, by people like Vandana Shiva. This requires major subsidies, however, which are hard to find. So far, there is often no way out.

Bitter questions?

After the film, I had a drink with mr. Peled and a manager of a company that focuses on organic fruits and vegetables. I asked a question, which seemed to be perceived as impertinent by the manager. I wonder if it was. I invite you to leave your thoughts below.

Earlier, the issue had been raised that a film ought to be made that portrays ‘the consumer’. I would surely welcome such a film. Over the past weeks, I watched about 15 documentaries dealing with the ethics of trade. I was surprised to find that the position of the consumer received hardly any attention at all. I suggested that such a film, if it were made, ought to portray the challenges that consumers face. Increasingly, individuals are made responsible for the working conditions at the other end of the world. Many have suggested that fairtrade consumption is a ‘fix’ that stems from a neoliberal mindset, even though we tend to think of it as an alternative. In one of his lectures, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that fairtrade is an example of ‘cultural capitalism’: by consuming, you do good while sustaining the system of global capitalism. There is a short video of the lecture, with wonderful animations, which I would recommend to anyone.

This was considered a ‘boring topic’ by the manager. I asked if they happened to have seen the documentary The Bitter Taste of Tea: A Journey Into the World of Fairtrade (Borgen & Heinemann, 2008). This controversial film suggests that working conditions on fairtrade tea plantations are often not much better than on non-certified plantations. Assuming this is true, what does this mean for consumers? Can we trust the certificates that are presented to us, or do we need to open every ‘black box‘ ourselves, to speak with the French philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-)? My comments seemed to offend the manager at our table. He replied, rightly I think, that improving working conditions needs to happen step by step. He suggested that we shouldn’t criticise those who try.

Was he right? I partly agree. We cannot expect the world to change at once. However, I would argue we need to have fair but critical investigations of the attempts we make. This does not need to result in criticism, but in a discussion nonetheless. To what extent is certification possible as a guarantee, as the logo promises? Is it perhaps partly a utopia, given the current governance of global trade? What does it mean for me, as a consumer? Can I rely on the fairtrade logo, or do I need to do more?