An experiment in transparency by artist Ai Weiwei has come to a premature end, as four webcams broadcasting from his Beijing studio-home were switched off on Wednesday evening. The cameras had allowed supporters and others to join the authorities in keeping him under 24-hour surveillance.
weiweicam.com 四分钟前关闭。再见，喜欢隐私的朋友们。4 minutes ago the cameras have been shut down. byebye to all the voyeurs.
— 艾未未Ai Weiwei (@aiww) April 4, 2012
Ai subsequently said that authorities had ordered the shutdown without explanation. “I don’t even have a reason for why they put me away for 81 days. There’s never clear, rational discussion,” he told the BBC. To the AFP, he recounted his attempt to reason with the official who phoned him:
“I explained to them: you have 15 cameras on me, and the camera I set up in my bedroom is exactly the same camera that I had above my head during my 81 detention days,” he said on Thursday.
“So I am doing you a favour to (let you) really know what I am doing and have a close watch.”
He elaborated on similarities between the conditions of his detention and his newly self-imposed surveillance in a telephone interview with the BBC , and also spoke to CNN shortly before receiving the order to turn off the cameras:
In contrast with the authorities’ reticence, Ai had been quite open about his reasoning for starting the feeds in the first place. From The Guardian, on Tuesday:
“It is the exact day, one year ago, that I went missing for 81 days. All my family and friends and everyone who cared were wondering where this guy was. So on the anniversary I think people may have worries. It’s a gift to them: I’m here and you can see me,” he said ….
“This is also a gift to public security because they follow me, tap my phone and do what is necessary to get ‘secrets’ from me. I don’t have secrets,” Ai said, poiting out there were now 15 surveillance cameras within a 100m stretch of road outside his home, making it the most-watched area of Beijing ….
Ai said he had not decided how long they would remain in place. “I even forget they are there,” he said. “If someone has a photo of me picking my nose, I’m not self-conscious. I’m just going to do my work and see what comes out.”
He later said on Twitter that he had intended for the project to mirror the 81 days of his detention. It was unknown during this time when the artist would reappear, hence, perhaps, his initial refusal to specify a planned duration for the camera feeds.