Artist Tells About Chinese Ordeal
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... 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 standing, 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 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.