Freedom, and the lack of it, has long been a key element of the work of Ai Weiwei, the artist, documentarian and activist who remains one of China’s most outspoken dissidents. “I think of freedom as very often being misunderstood,” Weiwei said today (September 18), speaking at the 2023 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). “Freedom is the essential quality of life.”
Hillary Clinton took on the role of interviewer as Weiwei, 66, discussed his thoughts on censorship, emerging technologies and humanitarian crises on the annual conference’s opening day. Looking back on his 2011 arrest by Chinese authorities, during which Weiwei was detained for several months and had his passport confiscated for four years, the artist mentioned that Clinton was one of the few international leaders to call for his release. Yet despite facing many fraught political challenges, Weiwei asserted that his struggles forced him to examine not only what he was doing but also why he was doing it. “Once you formally believe in what you’re doing, there’s no fear. The fear always belongs to the other side,” he said.
Weiwei is known for his contemporary sculptures and installations, which often bring together mass quantities of seemingly mundane objects—such as life jackets, chairs or sunflower seeds—as social and political commentary. In recent months, the artist has expressed concerns about the dangers of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and its potential to undermine humanity. “It’s very shattered, the world,” said Weiwei when Clinton asked about the state of the world amid rapid developments in A.I. and across social media. “It’s like a broken mirror—but a broken mirror still reflects reality,” he said. “Art and culture, not scientific developments alone, must be applied to help restore humanity,” he added.
Noting that freedom of expression is “deteriorating” in today’s society, the artist emphasized the need to band together to address issues like refugee crises, a topic which has featured prominently in his work. His 2017 project Good Fences Make Good Neighbors turned fences into installations to engage with the immigrant experience in New York and the city’s history as an immigration hub. It was followed by his documentary Human Flow, which explored refugee camps and border closures across Europe. “We have to think of refugees as us,” said Weiwei. “So even if we’re not losing our country or property, we’re losing important foundations of humanity—which is much worse.”
Who else attended the Clinton Global Initiative?
In addition to Weiwei’s discussion with Hillary Clinton, the conference’s day one lineup included panels with Pope Francis, former professional basketball player Dwyane Wade and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair. Launched in 2005 by former President Bill Clinton, CGI convenes leaders from across philanthropy, business, government and entertainment to establish philanthropic goals, known as “commitments to action.” It has led to more than 4,000 commitments to action since its founding, affecting 500 million people and involving more than 10,000 organizations.
A $10 million pledge from the non-profit Gitlab Foundation geared toward accelerating the use of emerging technologies is among the charitable commitments announced thus far at CGI 2023. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton and Israeli billionaire Ziv Aviram today announced their joint launch of EcoBridge, a global investment fund focused on companies addressing climate change, while actor Orlando Bloom announced his intention to raise $20 million to provide laptops for Ukrainian students. CGI is also expected to release details about the launch of its Ukraine Action Network, a collaboration between Hillary Clinton and Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska that will mobilize financial commitments to aide Ukraine.