When Eastern Mennonite University junior Victoria Gunawan began keeping a blog for her “Social Media” class on the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, she had no idea that she would eventually get to post a personal interview with Ai conducted via Skype.
Paulette Moore, who teaches the social media class, requires her students to keep a blog on a topic relevant to the class and offers ideas for that blog. She handed out a list of possibilities that included Al Weiwei, who is known around the world for his art as well as criticism of China’s ruling Communist Party.
Looking into Ai, Gunawan became intrigued and began to follow him on Twitter. After Gunawan published her first blog post on him, Ai began following her back. “I was so surprised,” said Gunawan. “He is world famous!”
When Ai was arrested and held for 81 days in China in the spring of 2011, 90,000 sympathizers around the world signed a petition asking for his release, according to Ai’s lengthy Wikipedia entry.
As a project for the social media class, Gunawan was supposed to interview someone who knew a lot about her topic. However, she ran into dead ends as she sought people to talk to about Ai, she said in an interview with EMU news service.
Beginning to panic, Gunawan sent Ai a personal message on Twitter. Not getting a response, she sent him a second message that said, “I need to interview you or I won’t get a good grade in this class.” He proposed a Skype interview for the next day.
Gunawan had never interviewed someone this influential before and was nervous at the prospect, so she texted Moore around midnight, expecting to get a response the next day. Her professor responded immediately and helped her come up with some questions for the interview.
Although Ai’s work as an artist is known widely – he is active in sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography, film, and social, political and cultural criticism, according to Wikipedia – he was not as pretentious or pompous as Gunawan expected a famous person to be. “I learned a lot about him as a person,” she said. “He is really powerful. I thought he would have an ego like people in a higher position have, but he didn’t. He is just a very nice person.”
Perhaps as surprising is the fact that Gunawan got through to Ai at all in China. “They wiretap his phone, his computer, his house, and he is constantly followed by the police as they spy on him and his whereabouts,” says his Wikipedia entry.
Gunaman asked him how EMU could best support his work and Ai replied, “Maybe just write to your [university] president and ask [if maybe] I can come to your school to teach or talk or whatever… Now we know each other, and I know you, [and] you know me. So, you know, we can keep in touch.”