New Statesman was guest edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei last week.
After being put under house arrest by the Chinese government in 2011, he agreed to edit the magazine in April, six months after New Statesman staff first tried to contact him.
Press Gazette spoke to features editor Sophie Elmhirst about her role in organising the edition – which included a trip to the Beijing studio of Weiwei
Why did the New Statesman approach Ai Weiwei to guest edit this edition?
It was the editor’s idea when Weiwei was in detention last year.
We were following the case very closely and then when he was released we got in touch with him to have him as a guest editor.
We chose him because of his prominence, his art, his global significance and his activism and bravery.
We made the approach through his gallery in London and it took a really long time to turn around but eventually they got the message to him.
How did you proceed?
We had a series emails with his office studio and then a Skype call.
He has very strict demarcated hours – he only really works in the studio in the morning, which is obviously in the middle of the night for us.
We had a 4am Skype call and realised it probably wasn’t sustainable to create a whole edition of the magazine like that.
So I went for a week in August and spent a week at the studio.
He was incredibly engaged from the off and we just met most days and talked through what he wanted to do and I also did an interview with him which we published a week before the magazine.
I think that really had to happen to make the whole thing real otherwise it would have been hard to pin him down. And it was good for him to get a physical idea of what the magazine was like.
Most of the graft came afterwards. When I came back he started thinking about what he could do with the magazine.
It was fascinating – and such an interesting way to go. I was just in Beijing but it was great to see the country through his eyes and his take on the state of China and its future.
To be able to go and work closely with someone like that, who’s such a figure there and yet such an absent figure in the way that he is erased from Chinese media and consciousness to the state’s best effort.
How enthusiastic was he about being guest editor?
Once we’d been put in touch he was incredibly receptive. His studio is an amazing place in the sense that once the connection has been forged he’s incredibly welcoming and he has this team of young, international people working for him.
He’s very forward-thinking in terms of social media and how he communicates. It’s a lot to do with how he’s censored and vanished in the online sphere in China.
He’s spent a lot of energy trying to overcome that. So he leaps at any opportunity to communicate beyond China.
He was also attracted by the idea of communicating this content within China. We’ve also produced the digital version of the magazine in Chinese.
And we’re getting reports back all the time, which is really exciting. It’s being downloaded and spread in Tibet, Shanghai, etc.
We’ve encouraged people to upload it, file-share it, tweet it and do whatever they can with it to help it get distributed within China. This is all content that they’d never usually be allowed to see.
New Statesman is a sister title of Press Gazette.