q&a James Powderly didn't trek from New York City to Beijing during the 2008 Olympics to watch table tennis. The artist was plotting to laser-beam a billboard-size, pro-Tibet message at the Bird's Nest Stadium. Instead, he spent six days locked up and interrogated by Chinese police under conditions he likens to torture. He was joined by other American would-be protestors sentenced to prison without being charged of a crime, then released early following U.S. pressure.
The Graffiti Research Lab co-founder and former engineer has helped pioneer open source, digital graffiti techniques, like L.A.S.E.R. tag projections of words and icons onto public walls, as well as LED bulb "throwies" that stick to surfaces to spell out messages in light.
Originally Powderly was invited to participate in a show at the National Art Museum of China, until he says organizers, fearing political controversy, kicked him out. Instead, he collaborated with Students for a Free Tibet (SFT).
Powderly says his high-tech gear--including a cell phone, green laser, laser printer, laptop, camera, tripods--may have tipped off Chinese authorities. And he suspects that if Twitter stops working in China, you might blame him and his collaborators.
Q: The last time we were in touch, you'd mentioned the upcoming Green (Chinese) Lantern project, which you didn't detail for obvious reasons. What happened? How did Chinese authorities find out what you were planning to do? Powderly: When I entered the country on the 15th of August I had a cell phone that might have already been compromised. It had already been used by protesters in the country...We don't know. They weren't telling.
It's safe to say I'm much more like Dr. Strangelove than like James Bond. I stick out like a sore thumb in Beijing. I'm about a foot taller than everybody. I'm wearing a fedora, camos, and sleeveless vest...
These people were still kind of bumbling but resourced and numerically outnumbered adversaries, in terms of the Chinese secret police. There are just so many of them and they're working with so much citizen support, meaning there are 300,000 people in the city just looking constantly and reporting, from taxi drivers to people on the street, undercover cops, policemen in uniforms, soldiers.
Whatever clued them into us, by the afternoon of the 18th I was being tailed by a woman. I spotted her, but I'm in a city of 20 million people. No way they're on me, I hadn't done anything. I was literally at the Wal-Mart superstore buying supplies..I doubted what I was seeing...
What happened next? When did you know for sure? How were you arrested? Powderly: I spent the day of the 17th scouting locations, buying a new laser printer. I went to kind of a safe house to build this laser stencil thing...They'd snuck a new laser in to me and I'd snuck in LED throwies for the LED banner for another group of activists...
I went to Tiananmen Square to scout that location because we'd planned to do two projection events. If we got away with the first one at the Olympic stadium, then we were gonna do the second one in Tiananmen Square...We were gonna project "Free Tibet" or "Tibet will be free" or "6/4/1989."
What worked and what didn't go forward? Powderly: None of them worked. We did nothing. We were arrested and detained in China...for doing nothing except for thinking about it.
On the 18th...I did my one and only laser projection that evening out the window on some torn-down buildings...way out in the outskirts of Beijing, literally the last stop of the "One" line...It worked better than any had before, and I'd come up with a new technique for making the stencils to do transparencies with a normal laser printer.
I'd printed out one test message, a little computer inside joke, just the words: "Free Beer." It's a quote from a renowned hacker (Richard Stallman) that refers to free software...… Read more