WikiLeaks' Unrealized Project: What We Learned From Hans Ulrich Obrist's Epic Interview With Julian Assange

WikiLeaks' Unrealized Project: What We Learned From Hans Ulrich Obrist's Epic Interview With Julian Assange
All told, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist's two-part interview with Julian Assange, published in the May and June issues of e-Flux Journal, the ambitious online theory site, comes to something like 40 pages when printed out. It's probably one of the more consequential things that Obrist has ever put his name on, even if the pairing of the clubbable contemporary art curator and the prickly info warrior seems odd at first.

It works, however, on two levels. WikiLeaks, the organization that Assange has become the face of, has exposed the United States' secret assassination squads in Afghanistan and secret bombing campaigns in Yemen. Nevertheless, it has also become bogged down in sordid allegations about Assange's personal life (even as the U.S. government's open torture of accused leaker Bradley Manning has become a human rights scandal). In his interview, Obrist basically treats Assange as an artist ("science, mathematics, quantum theory — all of these come together in your work"), thereby for the most part refocusing the discussion on the issues that his work addresses rather than his biography. That is to say, the interview focuses on the philosophy that first made him a figure of international significance.

At the same time, the pairing works because there's a convincing case to be made that Assange is relevant to contemporary artists: questions of how to relate to the looming power of the corporate media, how individuals navigate the sprawling universe of contemporary information, and what the limits of free speech are today are all concerns of the most important recent art (and Obrist submits his interlocutor to questions contributed by the likes of Paul Chan, Martha Rosler, Superflex, and a pre-detention Ai Weiwei — who asks about how individuals can stand up to power — to prove it). WikiLeaks's eruption onto the stage of history is probably one of the more paradigm-shifting developments in these areas of recent memory. So the interview gives us a chance to assess: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the WikiLeaks philosophy of cultural change, from the point of view of its most famous figurehead?

When questioned by Rosler, Assange explains his personal ideology as "a combination of libertarianism and the importance of understanding," which might be translated as a belief that if we just get rid of all the restrictions on information out there, the world would become a more tolerant place. Indeed, Assange professes a robust belief in the inherent political potential of information itself. He expounds a theory of censorship as an economic act: Because it requires an expenditure of resources to suppress information, anywhere it is suppressed becomes a signal, in his way of thinking, that the data involved has actual potential to impact real economic and political structures.

This is, in some ways, a beautiful thought — it leads Assange to believe, for instance, that China, where so much effort is put into rather heavy-handed state censorship, is actually giving out the "signal" that it is primed for change. "Censorship is always an opportunity," he says.

One leftish criticism of WikiLeaks has been that its data dumps have been so indiscriminate that they actually help bury the relevant stories within the mass, aiding the mainstream media in ducking the most pertinent issues. So it is interesting to see that an awareness of this dilemma was always on Assange's radar. "It was my view early on that the whole of the existing Fourth Estate was not big enough for the task of making sense of information that hadn't previously been public," he says. How, then, was the project supposed to work?

The epiphany, says Assange, came in thinking about all the work done for free by people editing Wikipedia articles or producing political blog commentary. If bloggers were mainly reactive to mainstream press rather than filling in its blanks, this is commonly said to be because they lack the resources to ferret out scoops. WikiLeaks could serve as the font of raw original material. "What we wanted to do," he says, "was to take all that volunteer labor that is spent on writing about things that are not terribly important, and redirect it to material that we released."

It is instructive to think that the organization's mission was always incomplete without this crowdsourced reporting process, which was to be the leaven that would make the leaked information rise, so to speak. In practice, Assange claims, this has not actually happened. A stifling economic logic reigns even in the unpaid blogosphere: "The aim of most non-professional writers is to take the cheapest possible content that permits them to demonstrate their value of conformity to the widest possible selection of the group that they wish to gain the favor of," he says. Consequently, the promise of the WikiLeaks project remains, in one significant aspect, unrealized, despite its vast impact on public discourse.

It is in cutting against a very common, foggy-headed Internet utopianismin art circles that this interview might be of most use. As part of the long response to a query about his ambitions for the future, Assange basically reverses the conventional wisdom that the Web makes censorship impossible: with books and newspapers, he argues, a story can be suppressed but at least potentially leaves behind a physical trace. On the web, a controversial story can be attacked in such a way that "the story not only ceased to exist, but ceased to have ever have existed," vanishing completely from the record. (He then talks about some kind of scheme to produce a unique way of indexing online content, so that in the very act of naming it an incorruptible record is produced. It's supposed to work like bit.ly, though the specifics are beyond me.)

This issue — of how to make the WikiLeaks info-revolution permanent — finally brings things back to the significance of the incongruous pairing of Obrist and Assange, the inveterate art-world networker and the guerrilla anti-journalist. "I wouldn't bedoing this interview if I didn't think that art could play a role in supportingus," Assange answers in response to a question from the group Metahaven, saying that artists might best play a role by processing WikiLeaks's lessons into emotional forms that people can relate to. Then he adds, "just in terms of practical connections, the art world isable to reach powerful people through the back door, through their sons anddaughters, through their wives, through their grandmothers, and through momentswhen they're least expecting it."

Is this an unrealistic dream? Maybe — but wouldn't it be some kind of great irony if a Web site dedicated to making an end run around the commercial media found an ally in a sphere sustained by the circulation of luxury goods? Strange times we live in.

Interventions is a weekly column by ARTINFO deputy editor Ben Davis. He can be reached at bdavis@artinfo.com