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“There’s always a surprise,” Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei wrote on Instagram yesterday, captioning a photograph of a surveillance device he found hidden in his studio after returning to Beijing from his first trip overseas in four years. For an artist who’s been under close watch by Chinese authorities since 2011, when he was first arrested at the Beijing airport on tax evasion charges, perhaps this news isn’t that much of a surprise.
“I’ve found a bunch of ‘bedbugs,’” the artist told human rights lawyer and friend Liu Xiaoyuan on Twitter. The listening devices were hidden in electrical sockets in a bedroom, living room, and office. Liu tweeted that they were discovered during a renovation of the studio and that they were likely placed there four years ago, during or after Ai’s 81-day detainment without charge following his arrest. Ai told CNN that the installation of the bugs could only have been a “professional job.”
The artist has a long history of turning such Big Brother-esque surveillance tactics into art, perversely making the spying authorities his most valuable muse. In 2012, in a prescient piece marking the first anniversary of his arrest, Ai installed web cameras at his home and broadcast a 24-hour live feed of his activities on weiweicam.com. Not long after, he hung red paper lanterns from the surveillance cameras he found installed outside his apartment. In 2014, while still banned from traveling outside China, he remotely created installations for a large-scale exhibition on San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, largely about freedom of expression. Several pieces featured quotes from privacy activist Edward Snowden (including “Privacy is a function of liberty”). And earlier this year he teamed up with WikiLeaks affiliate Jacob Appelbaum to create “Panda to Panda,” an installation of toy pandas stuffed with shredded Snowden documents and SD cards.
Such privacy-focused artworks are coupled with a relentless chronicling of the artist’s own life on Instagram, which is banned in China, but which people view through a virtual proxy network. By making his life totally transparent through social media, Ai aims to make the government’s constant surveillance of his activities seem almost redundant. With these newly discovered surveillance bugs, China’s security bureau has only given the artist more fodder for such commentary.
Since the Chinese authorities returned Ai’s passport to him in July, permitting him to travel outside the country for the first time in four years, he’s softened his criticism of the autocratic communist regime, dismaying many human rights activists. But he’s reacting to this most recent invasion of his privacy in typical maverick fashion. His cleverest response: an Instagram video of someone setting off a firecracker next to a surveillance device, captioned “Did you hear that?”