It's a Thursday morning in Beijing, and the world's most famous living artist, Ai Weiwei, is sitting with one of the world's most controversial technologists, Jacob Appelbaum, in the second-floor lobby of the East Hotel. Appelbaum is drinking a latte and eating a cherry danish with a fork. Ai is watching him.
Appelbaum, a Wikileaks collaborator who helped develop the anonymous web browser Tor, is wearing dark, thick-framed glasses and a black shirt that reads "Fuck the NSA." Ai takes out his iPhone, places it under the table for a better angle, snaps a photo of Appelbaum’s shirt, and uploads it to Instagram. Within a few minutes, the photo has garnered 500 likes from Ai's 100,000 followers.
For the first time in three days, Ai and Appelbaum are together without the presence of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Poitras, who just won an Oscar for her government surveillance opus, Citizenfour, came to Beijing to create a short film about Appelbaum and Ai meeting and making art together. In the absence of her camera, the two are free to be spontaneous.
On a whim, Ai suggests that they call Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living for the last two years at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Appelbaum, who knows Assange well from years of working on Wikileaks together, takes out his "Cryptophone" — a custom Samsung he carries that's loaded up with the strongest encryption technology on the market — and places the call. It's 9:40 a.m. in Beijing, and 2:40 a.m. in London. Assange picks up.
“I'm in Beijing with Ai Weiwei and he would like to talk to you,” says Appelbaum.
He hands the Cryptophone to Ai.
“I hope we are not disturbing you,” Ai tells Assange.
Ai and Assange have never spoken before, but the two, plus Appelbaum and Poitras, have a lot in common. Over the last decade, these four have exposed information that has made governments around the world furious. The secrets they have spilled have, collectively, altered the political consciousness of billions of people.
In 2008, Ai began collecting and publishing over 5,000 names of children who died in an earthquake in Sichuan, China when their schools collapsed due to shoddy government construction—at a time when authorities refused to acknowledge the earthquake's death count. As a result of his repeated writing and art-making about politically sensitive topics, Chinese authorities shut down his popular Sina-hosted blog in 2009. When he visited the Sichuan region shortly after that, police beat him so violently that he had to have emergency brain surgery a month later in Munich. In 2011, he was detained for nearly three months related to alleged tax evasion by his design firm, during which time he was accompanied day and night by two guards, a horrifying experience that he later turned into art. When he was released, authorities refused to give him his passport, meaning that he hasn’t been able to leave China since 2011.
While Ai is stranded inside his own country, Appelbaum, a California native, is stranded outside of his. He is subject to a criminal grand jury investigation in the U.S. due to his involvement with the transparency organization Wikileaks, which has published half a million classified U.S. military documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; 250,000 diplomatic cables from the State Department; and, most recently, the Sony Pictures emails and documents that were allegedly hacked by agents working on behalf of North Korea. "The Department of Justice is conducting an investigation, and it remains ongoing," says a Department of Justice spokesperson by email. Though there have been no official charges announced against him, Appelbaum’s lawyer says he is "at risk" if he returns to the U.S., so he has been living in Berlin since 2013.
“I’ve been in fucking purgatory for six years,” says Appelbaum, who first publicly associated himself with Wikileaks in 2010. “It’s endless, and it will never end, as far as I can tell.”
Ai and Assange talk for several minutes about the mundanities of the dissident life. Ai tells Assange he’s hopeful that China will give him his passport back; they compare the size of their living quarters. While Ai and Assange speak, Appelbaum listens intently, a beaming smile spreading across his face.
“The only thing that makes all of this bearable is that we have each other,” he says.
Appelbaum came to Beijing to meet Ai at the request of Rhizome, a non-profit affiliated with the New Museum in New York. For the last six years, Rhizome has paired seven technologists with seven artists, and given each duo 24 hours to create a joint art project. Usually, the pairs meet in New York, but that wasn’t possible with these two. Appelbaum can’t return to his home country, and Ai can’t leave his. Instead, the men meet at Ai's house, an airy studio complex in Beijing’s art district.
At the house, Ai and Appelbaum are joined by Poitras, who was invited by Rhizome to make a film about this meeting. Poitras has been on the government surveillance beat for a few years. Between 2006, when she released a film about the occupation in Iraq, and 2012, she says she was detained and searched dozens of times by Department of Homeland Security agents at airports, and had her electronic equipment, reporting notes and other materials seized. The experience galvanized her anti-surveillance views, and in 2013, she was given a set of classified documents by an anonymous source. That source turned out to be Edward Snowden, and the Oscar-winning film she ultimately produced about the Snowden saga, Citizenfour, became a work of protest against mass surveillance.
As a result of their activism, Ai, Appelbaum, and Poitras have become three of the most justifiably paranoid people in the world. They have faced detentions and, in the case of Ai, jail time. Every day, the possibility of government retribution casts a shadow over their lives. Every communique they send is presumed to be monitored, every movement tracked. “When I was writing those three names in one email, it's a red flag immediately and you have to assume that’s happening," says Rhizome director Heather Corcoran, who arranged the meeting. (Corcoran also invited me to China to witness the meeting, and document the project the three would create together.)
Meeting with a group of celebrity dissidents in an authoritarian country meant taking some extra precautions, including buying burner devices so that my normal ones wouldn't get infected with Chinese spyware. I installed a VPN from Private Internet Access on a brand-new Toshiba Chromebook, so that I could circumvent the Great Firewall and keep feeding my Twitter addiction (the social network is banned there). I installed TextSecure, an encrypting texting app, on a brand-new Moto G Android phone (a choice I later regretted, since Google's entire app store is blocked within mainland China). And finally, since Google and its services were off-limits, I opened a Yahoo email account.
I came to China expecting to witness Ai, Appelbaum, and Poitras produce an artistic meditation on government surveillance. I hadn't counted on them surveilling each other. All three had cameras on them nearly the entire time they were together, with Ai and Appelbaum taking candid shots of each other constantly. Occasionally, it felt like Ai Weiwei’s compound had been transformed into "The Real World: Enemy of the State Edition." Ai, who says he has taken 750,000 digital photos over the last decade, was the most prolific paparazzo of the bunch. (His iPhone 5s is so beloved to him that he once crafted a buttonless replica out of black jade.)
Ai's years of living under government surveillance haven't made him wary of pointing the camera at others; in fact, just the opposite. “I don’t ask to take photos anymore,” says Ai. “Because our images are being recorded all the time in the city, 100 times a day. You know it in the back of your mind that you are constantly being recorded.”
Even though Ai and Appelbaum have a lot in common, they make an odd pair. At 57, Ai is nearly twice Appelbaum’s age, with a long beard that contains more white than black. Ai is taciturn and calm, observing more than he speaks; Appelbaum, 32, is a high-energy talker who loves to tell tales of international intrigue. Ai travels with a constant entourage of assistants; Appelbaum gets nervous in large groups. Ai is an artist who prefers to make his mark through symbolism; Appelbaum is a radical who believes in direct action.
When authorities increased the number of surveillance cameras in front of Ai's studio, he marked each one with a red Chinese lantern. "I was thinking we could replace all of the lanterns with helium balloons that would block the cameras," said Appelbaum to Ai soon after meeting him.
"There is no need to provoke," responds Ai. "The lanterns are enough."
The two also have different notions of personal privacy. Ai, who is convinced that his phone is tapped because of police visits stemming from messages he received on it, nevertheless believes that the sheer volume of his self-documentation will protect him, by overwhelming the police with information. “I don’t think it’s possible to evade surveillance,” he says. “It becomes like a Cold War. They make a bigger effort. I am the one with no secrets. They have secrets. It is only because they have secrets that they can imagine everyone having them too." Appelbaum, who is better-versed in the technical processes that allow governments to pick through enormous piles of personal information, prefers to keep his data private.
Appelbaum became involved in environment and animal activist groups as a teenager, and began learning about privacy-enhancing technologies after he discovered the extent to which activists can become targets for monitoring. While working in IT in his twenties for Greenpeace and the BDSM porn site Kink.com, he started volunteering for Tor. In 2006, he met Julian Assange at the Computer Chaos Club, a Berlin-based hacker association, and by 2008, Appelbaum had fully embraced the anarcho-hacker life. At the beginning of 2013, he was working as a full-time developer and trainer for the anonymity browser Tor when Laura Poitras, who he had become friends with after being filmed by her, received an email from an unnamed NSA contractor, signed with the pseudonym "citizenfour."
Edward Snowden's leaked documents made him a global celebrity, of course, but they also raised the profiles of everyone associated with him, and potentially made them targets for investigation. When the Snowden story broke in June 2013, Appelbaum was on a month-long trip to India and Europe. Realizing that his association with Poitras and Snowden on top of the ongoing Wikileaks investigation could mean he'd be interrogated in the States, he decided not to return home. He'd like to return to the States someday, but he seems to feed off the energy of exile. He has since been privy to the Snowden documents, and has written reports for the German magazine Der Spiegel and other European newspapers on the global spying operations they revealed.
“I knew long ago that my great contribution to the world would be to reveal surveillance,” he says.
In person, Appelbaum is much less guarded than you'd expect from a professional privacy wonk; unlike Ai, who talks in the manner of a person who knows he's being watched, Appelbaum is filterless, and opens up to new acquaintances with surprising ease.
“I don’t think any surveillance is legitimate," he tells me one day. "Everyone should have the right to privacy and know their emails won’t be read, even if they are horrible people, like cops in Ferguson."
Although Appelbaum believes fervently in a right to privacy for individuals, he's far less protective of large, powerful institutions. He says, for example, that Wikileaks was completely justified in posting the hacked emails of Sony Pictures employees. “Those racist fucks?" he says, referring to emails sent between Sony chief Amy Pascal and director Scott Rudin, in which the two joked about President Obama's preference for movies starring black actors. "They are people who were negligent."
At times, Appelbaum's bravado borders on comical, as when he answers his hotel phone, "Wikileaks, Beijing headquarters." But there's a reason for his outlaw shtick; he is, after all, a man who has been surveilled for the better part of a decade. After arriving in Beijing, Appelbaum set up a Tor router in his hotel room that broadcast a Meek Wi-Fi network, so that he could use the Internet free of surveillance. He also brought a motion-detecting camera, so that he would be notified if anyone came into his room while he was gone. On the night he arrived, Appelbaum was happy to discover that, despite reports to the contrary, Tor was not blocked by China's infamous Internet censors.
“The perceptions of China don’t meet the reality,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like an oppressive surveillance state. China has been demonized by the West."
Appelbaum realized he'd praised an authoritarian regime, and added a caveat.
"Sure, they have mobile death vans that harvest people’s organs," he said, "but they’re not overtly restrictive.”
According to Chinese state media reports, even the organ harvesting appears to have ended this year.
For the three days of my visit in Beijing, white pollen drifts down from the sky like snow. The pollen coats my clothes, my hair, even slipping into my mouth when I forget to close it. Ai’s assistants tell me that China's central planners planted thick stands of cottonwood trees throughout the city to quickly make it greener, not realizing that it would result in a pollen blizzard for a week every spring. It's a regrettable decision that is now so institutionalized that only foreigners complain about it.
Ai has not been cowed by the Chinese government's crackdown on dissidents, but he is certainly more cautious now than he used to be. His son, Ai Lao, 6, moved to Berlin last year with his mother, because they didn’t want him living in a repressive regime. Ai used to walk with Ai Lao to the park every day, but now speaks to him twice daily on Facetime.
I see Ai after one of these conversations; he's visibly distressed, looking down and massaging his brow roughly with his fingers. He tells me he wants his passport back so that he can travel again, even if that means avoiding acts that will provoke the government. “They illegally took my passport and promised me numerous times to let me have it,” he says.
Like Appelbaum, who has had his data handed over by companies like Google and Twitter at the U.S. government’s request, Ai has also seen his Internet life shrivel under the government's microscope. Since his blog was shut down in 2009 under government orders; his primary outlets are Instagram and Twitter, although he only retweets other people these days. He says he stopped tweeting to focus on long-form writing, but he made the decision around the same time his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, a human rights activist who has represented numerous dissidents, was arrested for “creating disturbances” with posts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Zhiqhiang has been in prison for a year now.
Of the three, Poitras has the least to worry about. Since Citizenfour was released to wide acclaim, her fame has become a protective shield. She has moved back to New York to prepare a solo show at the Whitney Museum, and while she is still careful to make sure her electronic information is encrypted every time she crosses a border, she now passes through customs without incident. The frenetic motion of the Snowden days, too, has receded into something resembling normalcy.
"I developed tinnitus when I first started getting those emails from Snowden — a constant ringing in my ears that came from my anxiety," she tells me. "Sometimes it was so loud that it was hard to think. But now, since the film came out, I don’t hear it anymore. It’s my body saying, 'Okay it’s safer now.'"
All three have come up with different coping strategies to deal with the likelihood that they're being surveilled. Ai's technique is, essentially, self-censorship. “You actually know more than you open to the public," he says, "because [saying too much] will worsen your condition.” Poitras, the journalist of the bunch, uses her filmmaking skills to show the dark possibilities of a world where privacy is nonexistent. "I'm not traumatized like Weiwei is," she says. "Though I do think I've internalized that surveillance is happening, like Foucault says." Appelbaum, who signs his name using the anarchist's circled-A insignia, prefers to go underground — using cryptographic technology to create the possibility for secure communication while he continues to expose government privacy violations.
“My one goal is that, in twenty years, no American can say they didn’t know what was happening,” he says.
Ai Weiwei is a famous artist in America — his exhibit at Alcatraz was sold out for months before closing Sunday, and he's been the star of two award-winning documentaries, Never Sorry and Fake Case. But in China, he's more obscure. On the streets of Beijing, no one gawks or murmurs in his presence. Only back in the hotel do international travelers beeline toward him with phones.
Monday morning after breakfast, Ai, Appelbaum and Poitras walk to a nearby park. Along the way, they stop into a DVD store to try to buy a copy of Citizenfour. The store only has a pirated copy of the movie, they learn, with cover credits that declare that the film stars “Queen Latifah” and “Common.” Ai asks the store clerk if the movie is any good.
“It’s okay,” the clerk replies in Mandarin, seemingly unaware that the film's director is staring at him.
Poitras and Appelbaum go way back — they were neighbors and collaborators in Berlin — but Ai and Appelbaum hadn't so much as Googled each other before the trip. (Or Bing-ed, in Ai's case.) Ai only knew of Appelbaum through his appearance in Citizenfour, which he watched shortly before his visitors’ arrivals. Despite the pressures of the work they've been asked to do — creating a meaningful piece of activist art in just 48 hours — the three become something like friends.
Their visit was dotted by moments of tension and cultural dissonance. At one point, Appelbaum asked Ai to pose for photos in a park. "Should I take my jacket off?" asks Ai. "Take it all off," says Appelbaum. Ai's shirt came off. Then Appelbaum's did, too. Both of them stood shirtless among the trees, and no one could quite figure out what was going on. "Why did you take your shirt off?" asked Ai after Appelbaum stopped taking photos.
The danger they faced as dissidents came up at odd points in the conversation. Over a lunch of chicken feet, Peking duck, aged tofu and Chinese toffee apples, Appelbaum asked Ai if he wanted to make a campaign video for Hillary Clinton with him.
"You're going to vote for Hillary Clinton?" Poitras asked.
"Well, she'll hunt down every member of Wikileaks. I'll end up dying in a drone strike," Appelbaum said. "But she's good on social issues. All of my female friends who want abortions will be able to get them."
Ai shakes his head at the idea of making a campaign video. “They are all the same,” says Ai of the American presidential candidates. “It is good because it keeps things stable. But they are all the same.”
On Tuesday morning, the group heads to Ai’s studio. They walk through the bright green door into a courtyard planted with grass and bamboo trees surrounded by ivy-covered grey walls. Cats wander around. It would be a serene scene, if not for a huge neon light installation hanging from one side of the courtyard. The sign spells "F-U-C-K." On the opposite side of the courtyard, 15 white, pinstriped Foxconn uniforms hang from a metal rope, and sway stiffly in the wind. (Foxconn, of course, is China's most famous electronics manufacturing company.)
The Foxconn piece is bound for Sweden. Ai and his team build his art within the studio and then his staff travels to install it. “I am everywhere and I am nowhere,” he says. “That’s the beauty of the Internet Age.”
A white, large room in the back of the studio houses projects in progress. There’s a blown up version of the selfie Ai took in a hotel elevator with the police officer who had just attacked him, leaving him with a head injury that later needed emergency surgery. Pointing at a collection of colored fabric drawn taught over bamboo skeletons of animals, Ai Weiwei says, “I’m like this bamboo here being twisted into different shapes by unknown forces."
Eventually, it's time to settle down for business. Together, Ai and Appelbaum are supposed to create an art project for Rhizome's exhibit in New York, and Poitras is supposed to film the creation process.
It's been a long week, and Ai and Appelbaum are tense and tired from all the commotion. But they have an idea for an art project. They gather materials, form a six-person assembly line, and start building objects, with Poitras behind the camera.
I cannot tell you exactly what they created. As a condition of being allowed to observe their art-making project, Rhizome asked me not to reveal its nature until the Seven On Seven conference on May 2, where they'll exhibit their art along with the other partnered teams. It was a frustrating condition, but a necessary one. I will say, however, that the art project they made combines Appelbaum's fervent desire to spread information with Ai's desire to find the hidden, deeper meaning in ordinary objects.
Update: They bought 20 panda bears, with Ai explaining that "panda" is a term used in China to describe a member of the secret police. And they printed and shredded documents from the Snowden archive that have been published by newspapers. Then they destuffed the pandas, and restuffed them with the shredded documents as well as a micro SD card, while being filmed by Poitras, who is calling her short film about the project, "Surveillance Machine." "The pandas can self-replicate," says Appelbaum. "We've restuffed them with data."
As they walk out of the studio after finishing the project, Appelbaum thanks Ai for the honor of spending time with him and learning from him.
"If you ever need help getting around the Great Firewall, I can help with that," he tells Ai's staff. "I work for Tor."
As they exit, Poitras and Ai hug. She keeps an arm around his shoulder as they walk to the courtyard door. "Hopefully I'll see you soon," she says. "Elsewhere. In Berlin, or New York, or Munich."
Ai responds, "I don't think that's going to happen too soon."
After Appelbaum and Ai finished their conversation with Assange, I sped off to the airport in a taxi with Appelbaum. He and Poitras were flying on to Hong Kong for the premiere of Citizenfour there, and Appelbaum kept trying to convince me to go. But I had had enough of the dissident lifestyle — of feeling like a potential target, of wondering who was tracking us, of having to assume that someone probably was.
I arrived at 11:10 for an international flight that left at noon. As I quickly made my way though the airport, I was more conscious — and nervous — than usual about the security measures I needed to go through. Would Chinese customs agents know I just spent the last three days hanging out with the country's most famous dissident and Edward Snowden's confidants? Would they detain me? Seize my notes? Worse?
At customs, I slowed down to walk through a heat detection system, which tested me for signs of a fever. Chinese immigration had taken a photo of me on the way into the country, and I stood in front of a camera at customs to take another photo on my way out. I couldn't help but get paranoid. If facial detection technology was being used at the Beijing airport, surely these cameras would detect my anxiety.
As a privacy reporter, I'm a fairly paranoid person. I put a sticker over the front-facing camera in my laptop. I have a PGP key if someone wants to send me encrypted email. I use a VPN if I'm on public Wi-Fi.
But I'm not perfect. There are many ways I willingly sacrifice my privacy in exchange for convenience, and leave data trails behind: I'm on Facebook. I use a loyalty card at Safeway. My partner knows the code to unlock my phone.
As I'm lugging my bag through the Beijing airport, though, I'm feeling oddly calm about my privacy shortfalls. Because living like Appelbaum and Ai do — being constantly paranoid — just isn't sustainable. A life like theirs creates a prison of its own, a panopticon in which authorities control you, even when they're not paying attention.
Ai, Appelbaum, Poitras, and Assange have all found their privacy comfort levels. But to be truly private, in the connected age, means being alone. And even then, it's impossible to completely stop surveillance. Too much of our information is out of our own control. Living comfortably in the world is all about finding a privacy balance that works for you, knowing that information may get out that could come back to haunt you—but hoping that it never does.
At the airport, I pass through security without incident. I did set off the metal detector, but it was a routine bra-wire scenario, and I was quickly patted down and waved through. And then I was running — not because I worried that anyone was after me, but because I was on the verge of missing my flight. I was ready to be home, and more grateful than ever that I could return to it.
Editor's note: This piece was updated on May 2 to reveal what the duo made.