ARTIST TELLS ALL ABOUT CHINESE ORDEAL
New York artist James Powderly made news during the Beijing Olympic Games when he was detained along with five other activists for planning a "Free Tibet" protest. "NYC Graffiti Artist Is Arrested in Beijing," read the New York Metro headline on Aug. 20, 2008. Few additional details were given.
Powderly has since returned to New York, arriving Monday, Aug. 25, after spending six days in a Chinese jail. On Tuesday, the still audibly shaken artist spoke with Artnet Magazine, giving the details of an ordeal that sounds like a Cold War spy caper.
Powderly is a founding member of Graffiti Research Lab (GRL, with Evan Roth and Theodore Watson), a collective that combines the idealism of the "open source" software movement with both old school graffiti and highbrow social critique. A 2002 graduate of NYU’s ITP program with a focus in interactive art, Powderly went on to work as an engineer for Honeybee Robotics, a NASA contractor. He says he quit Honeybee when it began to do work related to the Iraq War, and instead became involved with stalwart New York art nonprofit Eyebeam.
In 2005, he founded GRL to experiment with public art and technology. The group has received a certain amount of attention for its Laser Tag performances, which involve projecting "laser graffiti" on the sides of public buildings. GRL put on Laser Tag events earlier in 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate in London, as well as other venues, and a movie about their work, GRL: The Complete First Season, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
This mounting success led Powderly to China as well: GRL was invited to perform Laser Tag in "Synthetic Times," June 10-July 3, 2008, a show about art and technology at the National Art Museum of China (NAMoC) in Beijing, organized by NAMoC director Fan Dian with Zhang Ga, a one-time professor in the media design department at Parson’s the New School for Design. The invitation was cancelled, however, following the headline-grabbing protests against Chinese government actions in Tibet in March. According to Powderly, organizers were concerned that the GRL project might be used to project political messages.
At this point, Powderly says, he was contacted by members of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), who had been thinking of using GRL’s laser projection idea -- the designs for all of the group’s devices are published on their website, and they encourage others to use them -- to draw attention to the Tibetan cause during the Olympic Games. At the same time, Powderly had received a separate invitation to participate in a street art show at Beijing’s 798 Arts District -- a show that was also cancelled, he said, apparently due to concerns about edgy content. However, he still had a ticket to China booked.
"My understanding of the Tibetan issue was not in depth," Powderly told Artnet Magazine, saying that his activities involved a more general statement about freedom of speech, given what he felt was his own brush with censorship. "I understand it better now, having been in prison."
In the months leading up to the games, Powderly did workshops with SFT members to show them how to use "throwies," which are individual, magnetic LED lights that can be used to create "light graffiti," the subject of GRL’s earliest experiments (this technique was used for a "Free Tibet" light banner unfurled in front of the Olympic Stadium, a photo of which was widely disseminated to newspapers by SFT). After deciding that he would also use his trip to China to participate in the "Free Tibet" actions, he began to brainstorm ideas for devices that he could contribute for what he describes as a "counter-spectacle" to the extravagant celebrations of Chinese power.
Ironically, the artist says that an initial idea to use "laser stencils" -- small, handheld devices that could cast powerful images -- was scrapped partly because the technology he would need is only manufactured in China, and it seemed imprudent to ask a Chinese manufacturer to make "Free Tibet" material. Instead, Powderly hit upon the idea of fabricating a portable laser projection device. A prototype was tested in New York in July, when he used it to cast "NSA" in green laser light on the side of the Verizon building (a reference to the company’s collaboration with the U.S. government on domestic wiretapping) and the letters "GRL" on the Williamsburg Bridge.
The real cloak-and-dagger part of Powderly’s adventure began when he arrived in Beijing on Aug. 15 without a finished device. "I assumed that I would do the prototyping in Beijing," he said. On Aug. 16, he made contact with a member of Students for a Free Tibet, and did a "suitcase swap," giving the activist a container of LED lights and batteries he had brought into the country, while the SFT representative gave him items he could repurpose to create his device, including a laser printer and transparencies. On Aug. 18, at an apartment on the outskirts of the city, he finished his prototype, testing it out by projecting two small-scale messages out of his window, using the test slogans "I<3 China" and "Free Beer" (both insider references to the power of wired activism). It was, he says, the only artistic project that he would get to do in China.
By this time, Powderly says that he had also become aware that he was being followed, having noticed a woman tailing him at the Beijing Wal-Mart Superstore where he had picked up materials to complete the laser. Seeing the same woman once again on the subway, Powderly had pretended to be falling asleep, then threw himself abruptly from the car at his stop, believing that he had thereby lost her. Later, he met with a group of fellow activists at a bar to discuss the possibility that they were being surveilled -- only to be greeted outside by the same woman, and a large team of secret police. Powderly was seized, along with the other "Free Tibet" activists: Brian Conley, Jeff Goldin, Tom Grant, Michael Liss and Jeffrey Rae.
The six Americans were taken in SUVs to what Powderly describes as a "Russian Hotel," where they were interrogated extensively. "They alternated treating us politely, telling us it was a mistake and asking me what it was like to be an artist," then changed gears, "telling me that I was going to die in mainland China," Powderly recounts. "They would give you all the water you wanted, but they wouldn’t let you use the bathroom. They would give you cigarettes, but they wouldn’t let me take my medicine for Crone’s disease." He says that the Chinese secret service had emails, text message communications and transcripts of their phone calls, already translated into Chinese. (Incredibly, during an unguarded moment, the artist managed to snap a photo of one of his sleeping interrogators, which he preserved by removing the batteries to his camera, so that the police could not check his memory card later.)
After hours of interrogation, the six were driven to Chongwen Detention Center outside of Beijing, where they were stripped, given medical examinations and uniforms, and put into the general population.
Actual jail time is highly unusual for American activists detained in China. In fact, even the activists who successfully unfurled the LED "Free Tibet" in front of the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 19 were simply deported after a few hours. Powderly and his cohorts, on the other hand, were summarily sentenced to 10 days for "disrupting public order."
In jail, he says, they were kept in a state of uncertainty as to their fate. Powderly was held in what he describes as a 10 x 5 meter cell, shared with numerous other prisoners. Among his cellmates was "Emmanuel," a Ghanaian man who had a PhD in economics who spoke Mandarin and English, but who had overstayed his visa, and a man named "Roger," who was from Cameroon, and who also had an expired visa. Another cellmate was a 51-year-old Mongolian man who claimed to have no idea why he was there. None knew how long they would be held.
Activities in Chongwen were strictly regimented. "Thirty minutes sitting, thirty minutes walking in a circle, two hours of nap, and so on," Powderly recounts. Each day, he was taken to the "Inquisition Room," which the artist describes as "blood-spattered, really like something from a movie," where he was sat in a metal chair with "a giant handcuff-like claw" that went around his waist, and asked the same set of questions about what he had been planning and what he was doing in China over and over again. "After a while, the questions became pretty pointless," he said.
After four days, Powderly and the others were allowed to go to the U.S. embassy, where they were told that there was little that could be done for them. They could only hope that the Chinese would hold them for no longer than the 10-day sentence. After six days, the six activists were released and Powderly returned to New York. As a parting gesture, the Chinese secret service agents who drove him to the airport took the $2,000 from his wallet.
Since arriving back home, Powderly has busied himself with publicizing his experience. He is posting how-to plans for building the Beijing projection machine on the Instructables website under the heading "How to Get Yourself Thrown in a Chinese Jail." Next, he says he is going to recreate his detention cell at Chongwen using Google SketchUp, as a way of both preserving the memory and sharing information about conditions within the Chinese prison system. Various photos associated with his Beijing experience are already hosted on FuckFlickr, a photo-sharing website that, appropriately enough, Powderly helped launch as a protest when Flickr.com’s parent company Yahoo! helped the Chinese government track down Chinese dissident Shi Tao in 2005.
Powderly, who feels he was subjected to psychological torture, nevertheless stresses that what he went through pales in comparison to the ordeal of political prisoners or other inmates. He intends to share his experience with human rights groups and politicians, as well as with the public through his art. "They’re going to really wish that they killed my ass," he said.