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From NO!art to Now - Ai Weiwei, the Struggle Goes On
The Villager, New York, Volume 80, Number 46 on April 21 - 27, 2011
In dealing with the problem of the so-called Boris Lurie Art Foundation - who, through the use of trickery and the misuse of trademark laws, is attempting to steal the movement's name and distort its history against the wishes of one of its original founders, Boris Lurie - the typical solution would be to address the matter in court. I am somewhat familiar with the courts because, since 1988, I have been involved in numerous court cases. I see the courts as a place to defend and challenge ideas connected to one’s right in a democracy and a space in which to make a historical record.
Over the years, depending on the case, I have gone per se, which gives one tremendous latitude in presenting a personal point of view. I have been defended by many well-known radical lawyers - Lynn Stewart, Alton Maddox, William Kunstler, Ron Kuby, Stanly Cohen, David Rankin - and had the good fortune to get represented by a couple of brilliant legal aid lawyers, including Sarah Jones, granddaugther of a U.S. president.
Another group critical to my defense both in court and in the public forum were photographers sympathetic to the anti-gentrification struggle. I have had the privilege of having my arrests and public statements documented by some of the best photographers and video-makers connected to the anti-corporate and big money takeover in New York City: John Penley, Q Sakamaki, Elsa Rensaa, and Ai Weiwei.
In the NO!art attack I was not yet ready for a lawyer. But a unique, intelligent tactic was presented to me in the form of a letter from the German NO!artists Detlev Hjuler and Mama Baer. They had already consulted a lawyer and developed a letter defending the history of the use of the NO!art name. The letter was addressed to three government agencies connected to the Trademark Commission and came from two modern leaders holding down the NO!art movement: Dietmar Kirves and Clayton Patterson.
This new strategy could throw off the theft of the name of the movement, but, for me, it did not address the larger issues. I sent the three letters, but I did not want Dietmar, the Berlin-based East Front leader, dealing with the fight - he has more than enough to do maintaining the website. I wanted to start a public dialogue over the unethical, morally reprehensible art theft these interlopers were engaged in.
The Foundation is made up of four partners with plenty of money and access to power: Dr. Peter Sprenger, a politician in Liechtenstein, Dr. Geo Campanovo, a politician from Switzerland, Dr. William F. Pepper, a lawyer who jumps back and forth between offices in New York and London, and Gertrude Stein, an NYC secondary level art dealer who buys and sells market-established work. None of these interlopers are artists and none have any standing with or connection to the NO!art movement. Their only motivation is to carpetbag Boris Lurie’s 80 million-dollar estate.
I wanted to engage the intellectual power of a number of radical independent thinkers, freedom fighters for a more equitable form of inclusive democracy, that I’d been involved with over the years. I reached out to Alan Kaufman in San Francisco, who has a substantial list of literary work he’s published, including one of my articles in a book. He recently made news after founding the Free University of San Francisco.
Then there was Alan Moore, with whom I’ve worked on a few publishing projects. I recently gave him some support material for the defense of a squat in Hamburg. Another person I contacted was Leonid Penchevsky, a former leader of the radical Russian/American art movement with the ironic, tongue-in-cheek name Art Party Pravda. I published a booklet on these artists, showed work with the group, got them some public recognition and introduced Boris Lurie to the movement.
Boris was particularly fond of Konstantin K. Kuzminsky, born April 16, 1940, in Leningrad, who while in Russia became seen by the government as an anarchist challenging the communist system. He is probably best known for editing and publishing The Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry. I connected Harold H. Channer of Manhattan Neighborhood Network with Boris and Konstantin, and they were able to join the hundreds of other amazing interviews in Harold’s relevant archive.
Next I included Ron Koln and Jim Feast of the Unbearables, a radical literary group with long standing in the NYC, a group that creatively challenges the conventions of traditional writing and thinking. I contacted Ami Goldman in Tel Aviv, a filmmaker I introduced to the books of Boris, which then inspired him to go on and make the movie: NO!art Man. PEN, of which I am a member, is an international writer’s organization formed to defend free expression was on my email list. Then I included Ai Weiwei in Beijing, China.
From a conservative point of view, this email group could be seen as a radical list of warriors for a better democratic society. But it is my last connection that has caused me some serious consternation: Ai Weiwei.
Recently I reconnected with Ai Weiwei. I knew Ai Weiwei from the Lower East Side anti-gentrification struggles in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He was living on the LES and photographed the ’88 police riot as well as the homeless crises. Soon after he moved back to China. In 2011 he was having a one-man show at the Victoria Albert Museum in London and I had been asked to contribute some of my anti-gentrification videos. Since I had dropped out of the mainstream art world in the early 1980s, I had no idea that he had become such an internationally-recognized artist. Weiwei, a philosopher, artist, and architect, collaborated on such projects as the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Chinese Olympics.
He wanted me to send him a copy of the movie Captured. Captured was directed by Ben Solomon and Dan Levin and edited by Jenner Furst and produced by Blowback Productions. Captured is a movie about the building of the Clayton archive that Elsa and I created. So far the movie has been subtitled in French, German, and I was now hoping for the Chinese version. Weiwei said he could add Chinese subtitles.
What worries me is that the movie, if watched by a far-right wing conservative group, could be misunderstood as anti-authoritarian. There are parts of my being arrested, detained and fighting court battles, segments of obvious police misconduct, homeless crises, and the exposure of NYC underground creative activities. There is even a photo by Wewei published in the New York Times. The photo was of me in court holding up my hands with “DUMP KOCH,” our mayor at the time, written on the palms of my hands in heavy black felt maker.
What scares me is that, not so long after tracing my mail to Beijing, Weiwei’s connection became more sporadic. It turned out that the police raided his studio and took his computers, digital information, and anything else they thought may expose his fight for democracy and against China's one party system. I contemplated how a fascist would view the emails I had sent out asking for support and then the movie Captured.
Then on my way to Vienna to work at the Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe, to screen Captured and to show photographs, as I was wandering the Hudson News Bookstore, screaming off the first page of the Financial Times was a photo of Weiwei. He was on his way to Hong Kong. At the Beijing airport he was detained, arrested, then disappeared. The Chinese authorities confiscated all of his computers, digital archives and other ephemera related to his work. Obviously it was not Captured that caused his arrest, but its inclusion with other works challenging the Communist one-party system, and my including him in group emails with all the people on my list - these would not have helped him.
My fear is Captured and the emails questioning the theft of the NO!art name by eminent members of democratic society could seem quite revolutionary to the close-minded, anti-democratic, anti-free speech, anti-individual thinking in the Chinese Government. Challenges of the privileged social elite may be viewed as a threat to their system. After all, many of my court cases in America were battles over such ideas. But this is America. An example in Captured touches on one of my more public arrests, a hunger strike, and massive amounts of coverage in the news. I was able to win my freedom as well as to maintain the rights to my creative property. My 3'33" videotape came to be known as the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot Tape. But, in the end, my work belonged to me and not the state. I do not think that the China has an American constitution.
I am asking people to follow Weiwei's imprisonment and to write letters to the Chinese consulate on his behalf. And I am hoping to get some wider support for our struggle with the attempted theft of the intellectual property and copywritten material connected to NO!art.