Free Tibet
September 9, 2008, 2:01 am
Filed under: Art, Collaborative

James Powderly, an internationally acclaimed light artist, co-founder of the Graffiti Research Lab, and Eyebeam alumni, recently had an unpleasant run-in with the Chinese government regarding a plan to help a group of activists use lasers to project a pro-Tibet message on the side of a building near Tienanmen Square during this summer’s Olympics. What I know of this I learned through the Brooklyn Paper’s articles on the subject, the first published before he returned, the second after.  While I admire his work very much, and I am incredibly envious of (and inspired by) his technical ability and his creative use thereof; The comments posted on the second article have got me thinking about the use of art for activist purposes, and the effectiveness and integrity of activism in general.

My issue with activism lies between the desire to work to make the world a better place and the nagging thought of “what right do you have to decide what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for others?” What is considered a fight for the betterment of humanity by some might be considered terrorism by others.  Uninformed good intentions can create disastrous outcomes, and there will never be a worldwide unanimous agreement of what works best in any given situation. I suppose all we can do to fight for what we believe in, regardless of self doubt, and trust that dialectical forces will sort things out.

What is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is determined by majority opinion. Powderly was doing what he could to tilt majority opinion in favor of freeing Tibet.  He was successful even in his mission’s failure.  The number of comments on that article and here, and the variety of voices being expressed, however harsh, shows that people are paying attention, and care enough about the issue to argue about it. Debate produces ideas; by pointing out that going to China with high tech protest signs might not be the right way to go about helping Tibet, as one commenter did, perhaps someone else might come up with better solution.

James Powderly failed in his mission, but he succeeded in striking up one hell of a conversation.

*As a side note, if you feel like brushing up on Chinese politics, this link, provided by one of the commenters, is very interesting:


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