Is WikiLeaks Art?

A current London exhibition in support of Julian Assange is bringing attention to the reality of state surveillance and violence with relevance for us all, Alexander Adams writes.

Some of you reading this are under surveillance. The device you are using to read these words could be recording exactly what you’re doing. Developed by Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group, Pegasus malware for intelligence gathering operates through smartphones. It is able to track you via GPS, record your messages, and even turn on your camera and microphone to record you without your knowledge. The technology has been used by the security services of at least 45 countries, and has been associated with detentions, arrests, disappearances, and even state-sanctioned murders.

Artivist collective Forensic Architecture is highlighting this fact in their exhibition States of Violence at the a/political Gallery, South London, from 24 March to 8 April 2023. The display is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and the fourth anniversary of Julian Assange's incarceration in Belmarsh Prison, pending a decision on extradition requests from the USA. Assange is accused by Washington of breaking the 1917 Espionage Act in relation to the 2010 Cablegate staggered data release of classified cables from the CIA, embassies, and US state departments. 

On a shelf in the gallery sits 66 thick hardback books marked ‘SECRET + NOFORN’—top secret, no foreign readers permitted. These contain just 6.2 per cent of Cablegate’s confidential material. Visitors are invited to open the books, which contain (still classified) messages on diplomatic and security matters, documenting the reactions to assassinations and imprisonments, as well as unflattering descriptions of state leaders and candid assessments of governments. It makes fascinating reading, with parts confirming what had previously only been speculated. 

By opening and reading these books, we are breaking the law. The point to note is that, despite thousands of people (hackers, journalists, researchers) having done the same, legal efforts are still directed towards a single individual. If extradited and convicted in a US Federal court, Assange could face up to 175 years in prison.

Available free is a poster with an organogram showing how the British establishment has used its network of official and informal links to oppose Assange. It is an impressive piece of advocacy and makes a pithy and comprehensive case. Alongside this is a newspaper featuring images, with information regarding the artists and their subjects. As visitors enter the dim lower floor of the gallery, they are greeted by a marble statue of a Spanish policeman in riot gear, shushing us with his finger to his lips. This piece is by Spanish collective Democracia, who were prosecuted for recording the faces of policemen for their project We Protect You From Yourselves. Nearby, a series of photographs by Santiago Sierra document political prisoners in Spain. The work was initially withdrawn from an art fair in Madrid due to political pressure. While this display of artwork primarily sympathises with leftist, separatist, and anarchist beliefs, its efficacious nature provides an opportunity for a similar exploration of FBI operations against right-wing activists in recent years.

The exhibition’s array of media—sculpture, video, photographs, installations, and posters—joined together by a common theme of state-sponsored repression creates a powerful impression. This amplifies the argument being made, making each artwork look more connected than it would have on its own. On display is an animated NFT that was used to finance the costs of defending Assange’s extradition case.

We find echoes of older art. Those acquainted with Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair screenprints may at first take Edmund Clark’s photograph for a photograph of a contemporary electric chair. It is actually a feeding chair used to restrain Guantanamo Bay detainees while they are being force-fed. Sturdy and equipped with straps and wheels, the object is in equal parts chilling and ingenious.

When I toured the exhibition during the press preview, Russian artist Andrei Molodkin was setting up his elaborate artwork. It was composed of a clear acrylic case held in a steel frame that was attached to a dialysis machine. This dialysis machine would pump liquid, donated by Iraqi visitors to the exhibition, into the case which was marked with the British coat of arms.

On the airy top floor of the gallery is a series of photographs by Ai Weiwei, who has been a vocal advocate for Assange’s case. In the photographs, the Chinese dissident artist gives the middle finger to sites of power—Tiananmen Square, St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the White House, the Houses of Parliament—in a gesture of deliberate and defiant resistance that can carry criminal consequences in some states. Another piece is an assemblage by the late fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. It is a ramshackle guillotine protesting the treatment of Assange and was displayed in Conduit Street, London. In addition, Westwood designed T-shirts in support of Assange, which she wore on the catwalks of her fashion shows.

While many of the causes in this presentation are implicitly leftist (opposing Putin, supporting Basque and Catalan independence), they are of equal concern to both the left and the right. Governments worldwide, including the USA and UK, have vocally enforced more rigorous surveillance and repression of rightist dissenters than those on the left or Islamist groups. For example, militarised police are more likely to be used against those protesting migration than they are those in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In my book Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism (Imprint Academic, 2022)—which I discussed with Carl here—I laid out four grounds for criticising artivism: 1. It is not art. 2. It rejects the aesthetic in favour of the utilitarian. 3. It uses public resources reserved for actual art. 4. Artivists are often patsies, pushing “rebellious” values that are actually shared (and supported) by the deep state and powerful NGOs. While the first two still apply to material in States of Violence, the other two do not. This artivism is entirely funded by donors and crowd-sourcing, and it supports causes (Assange, Wikileaks, exposing deep state surveillance) that the establishment loathes and fears.

This is artivism done right, exposing matters of concern to the public and taking on formidable opponents. Even if one does not respond to the material in States of Violence—and some may even refute that it constitutes art—it must be admitted that it is a very effective show. It highlights the Wikileaks/Assange case in particular, offers captivating pieces, and presents its arguments in a persuasive and memorable fashion. Regardless of one's political opinions and stance on Assange, visiting this display is highly recommended. Whether it is art or not is ultimately something that must be decided by you.