Famous Dissidents Ai Weiwei and Jacob Applebaum Stuff Panda Bears with N.S.A. Documents

screenshot of The Art of Dissent.

Three of the world’s most famous dissidents have come together on a single art project, organized by Rhizome, the non-profit organization affiliated with the New Museum.

Chinese artist activist Ai Weiwei, who has been unable to leave his home country since 2011, has teamed up with Jacob Applebaum, a computer security researcher and hacker who has worked closely with Wikileaks.

The two met up in Beijing for five days to work on their project in Ai’s studio (which is heavily monitored by the Chinese goverment) in the Beijing art district, and invited Laura Poitras, the Oscar-winning director of the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, to film them (see Edward Snowden Documentary Citizenfour by Art World Darling Laura Poitras Triumphs at the Oscars).

The duo created an art project titled “Panda to Panda,” but it “was not about surveillance,” Poitras writes in the New York Times, “It was about secrets.” Applebaum and Ai stuffed toy panda bears with shredded N.S.A documents originally given to Poitros two years ago in Hong Kong when she and journalist Glenn Greenwald met whistle-blower Edward Snowden (see Edward Snowden’s Smashed Laptop Displayed at the V&A).

In each stuffed panda (the word panda in Chinese is slang for secret police), Ai and Applebaum placed a memory card containing a digital archive of the published documents released in June 2013.

screenshot of The Art of Dissent.

Screenshot of The Art of Dissent.

For his outspoken work, Ai Weiwei has suffered a traumatic brain injury after being beaten, detained, and put in jail for 81 days by Chinese officials. He subsequently moved his family, including his young son, to Berlin (see Exclusive Interview with Ai Weiwei on Working with Hollywood—Remotely).

Applebaum, who has repeatedly been harassed at immigration, has not returned to live in the United States due to an ongoing investigation into his involvement with Wikileaks, an organization that has published half a million classified U.S military documents. In order to communicate, he uses a Cryptophone—a custom Samsung cellphone that has the strongest encryption technology on the market, according to Fusion.

For the nine-minute documentary filmed by Poitras, the viewer will see three dissidents watching themselves being watched. Ai and Applebaum sit together shredding the sensitive documents, taking the stuffing out of the bears, replacing it with the scraps of paper and sewing in micro chips.

Applebaum says of the panda bears, “We’re going to distribute them to as many different places as we can, so it’s like a distributed backup—if you send one to different places it makes it impossible to destroy the information without destroying all 20 of them. One of the safest places to put it is in a museum or in a gallery, where it’s an object, where it’s protected.”

Watch the short film here.


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