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Fake News and Digital Surveillance: AWW Free School’s Third Series Workshop

People attending a workshop in the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken
6 months ago

By Karoun Chahinian

On Tuesday April 2, visitors gathered at the Gardiner Museum for AWW Free School: Fake News, the third in a series of four workshops that break down the themes presented in the special exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken. Led by RM Vaughan, a Canadian writer and video artist, and Michelle da Silva, the Life and Social Media Editor at Now Magazine, the night was filled with rich discussions on the history and impact of fake news, the normalization of digital surveillance, and how both themes are exemplified in Ai Weiwei’s work.

Vaughan opened the night with an in-depth exploration of the timelessness and ambiguity of fake news, mostly focusing on why it occurs.

“As long as there have been people, there’s been fake news. There’s no time in history when lies have not been weaponized,” said Vaughan, emphasizing that fake news has historically been used as an instrument of war and is particularly prevalent in unstable democracies.

People attending a workshop in the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken

Ai Weiwei was constantly bombarded by government propaganda when living in China, which Vaughan pointed out is strongly reflected in his work.

“Part of his game that he plays is between the familiar and the strange,” he said, referencing the artist’s Dropping a Han dynasty Urn, a series of three photographs that literally smashes the concept of value and questions the knowledge and information handed down by the Chinese government.

Vaughan noted the link between fake news and the visual artists who co-opt it, suggesting that it can be a source of cultural production. In countries where the majority of news is produced and screened by government agencies, artists like Ai can cut through the noise and produce a counter-message through works that mimic fake news and propaganda.

It’s no surprise then that Ai has been subject to intense government surveillance. This was the focus of the second portion of the evening, a conversation on digital surveillance and cybersecurity.

People attending a workshop in the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken

Michelle Da Silva started her workshop by directing our attention to Ai’s Camera with Plinth, a reference to the invasive surveillance that the artist has endured, paired with a quote detailing our society’s fascination (or borderline obsession) with surveillance and photographic documentation.

To begin the discussion, she listed three different locations familiar to the attendees—their banks, schools, and homes—and asked them how comfortable they would be being surveilled in each place. Although most were uncomfortable with surveillance in private spaces, da Silva was quick to point out that we’re almost always being digitally surveilled in one way or another through our constant use of social media and AI-powered smart products, such as Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

The group discussion then led to the subject of “citizen journalists,” and our society’s fascination with documenting everything—from the extraordinary to the mundane—and sharing it with others.

“The first thing people do is take out their phones and start to film, but who are people filming for? Where’s that video going to end up? And what are people going to gain from watching that video? These are all important questions to ask,” she said, suggesting that we’re all journalists in a way, recording the truths we see through our cellphone cameras.

The evening came to an end with a joint Q&A session where da Silva and Vaughan fielded questions concerning the profitability of social media and today’s “influencer,” and the unethical side of journalism influenced by bribery and personal favours.

It was an insightful workshop that pushed its attendees to think outside of the norm when discussing news and digital surveillance. These are topics we hear about everyday—to the point where they’ve become buzzwords—but we were all able to learn more about them collaboratively, and use that newfound perspective to better identify with Ai’s powerful works of art.

Inspired by the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken, AWW Free School is a unique workshop series presented in collaboration with Ryerson University that transforms the exhibition into a site for social action. The AWW Free School will culminate on June 4, 2019 with AWW Free School Final: 6/4/89, a panel that reflects on the student protests at Tiananmen Square thirty years later.

AWW Free School Partners

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