Start by leaping off a small stool

ISEA Closing Keynote Address: Julian Assange
Sydney Uni, 13 June

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Beamed in from what must seem another world entirely – the Ecuadorian Embassy in London – most of Julian Assange’s keynote, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t directly address the work of artists. His inclusion in ISEA, however, provided a rare, direct and intense provocation to artists to be politically engaged, to take risks, to amass knowledge and to ask hard questions – all things artists are good at, perhaps especially so in the new media and digital disciplines.

What Assange contributed was a view from the frontiers of resistance, some rousing rhetoric, and the unqualified assertion that resistance is not futile, and more than fertile – that it’s absolutely necessary. Here’s a precis of his address to ISEA delegates:

Wikileaks and artists
When asked to speak at ISEA, Assange says his initial reaction was whether we as artists could ‘get’ what he has experienced and is doing. He wondered, is art a waste of time? We need to ask this of ourselves all the time, he says. Every day we don’t live out our ideals is a wasted day. Pointing to the WikiLeaks logo on the background screen, he explains its visual rationale: the flow of information from a dark world to one of light. Art done ‘right’, he says, does the same thing.

Not everything, but the hardest thing
WikiLeaks didn’t try to take on everything; it focused on the essence of the hardest thing, he says. This essence is political and economic, he says: the greater the oppression, the stronger signal it gives off and the more its release will change the world. The “99% wankery” at conferences like this, he suggests, doesn’t matter: if the other 1% of what’s done actually achieves something, it’s worth it.

The internet: penetration, enrichment, distortion
Once upon a time – five or six years ago – the internet was something that connected us. It has now penetrated, enriched and distorted our lives and all aspects of our culture have penetrated it too, including penetration in the form of corruption, he says. Edward Snowden has this week exposed the existence of mass surveillance of cyberspace. Those “in the game”, says Assange, see the flow of information like oil pipes connecting the continents; they police this “oil” like a valuable commodity. He goes on to allege the corruptions of government agencies and then corporations including Google, facebook, Skype and Microsoft, first by the Bush and then the Obama administrations.

Call to action: 1
The internet is no longer a place where we are all equals: now, says Assange, it’s a militarily occupied space. He quotes from his own book Cypherpunks (2012): “the world is galloping into a new transnational utopia”; “our greatest tool of emancipation has become transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism our world has ever seen”. We can’t escape the web of surveillance, he says – the implication is that our only hope lies in dismantling it. He urges us to take up arms (metaphorically) and fight, for ourselves and those we love.

Shifting ground – and the job of artists
If everyone present at this lecture was locked in a room for six months, says Assange, we would eventually start to figure out together what we want. Over the past four years, a new body politic is developing: the internet has become a realm in which people can discuss and debate what values are important. The internet has become a political space. Assange sees figures like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning as expressions of this new phenomenon. A distillation of values is taking place. The first value is coupled to the network itself, he says: the right to communicate, to give and receive communications (he refers to UN Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights).
Even if we don’t consciously yet understand what rights we want to protect, says Assange, we’re seeing people who are struggling and taking action for these rights. As artists, he adds, it’s our job to further investigate what these rights are.

What we need to dismantle – the state of things here
Assange describes Australia as “the easiest place in the world for US intelligence services to work”. The anglophone alliance of security organisations centred around the US’s National Security Agency, Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) and the UK’s GCHQ is becoming more and more tightly interwoven, he says; describing Australia as “a US aircraft carrier in the Pacific”. The totalitarian structure has been well and truly built, says Assange: he suggests that all it requires now is the totalitarian regime to drive it.

How to fight the system
How can we struggle against mass surveillance? Erect a new system of values as part of the political/democratic system. Fighting the system should not be done by weakening the structures of government or even security, says Assange, but by strengthening the values that we want and ensuring they are protected by our governing structures.
Assange alleges that the current structure is one in which, while countries such as Australia protect their own citizens to a degree, nations effectively spy on each other’s citizens by agreement. Firstly, what’s going on must be revealed, he says. He insists that Australia’s DSD must be susceptible to FOI requests. ASIO, he says, is currently “a land where transparency doesn’t apply”.
Where privacy is violated there must be an audit trail, says Assange. He states that his WikiLeaks Party will insist that authorities intercepting Australians must report to Parliament twice a year and must be susceptible to the FOI legislation. Laws must not only be made, he says; they must be enforced.

Civic courage – call to action 2
Assange anticipates our thoughts at this point, suggesting that we look at Edward Snowden and think the risk is too high – where would I start? How could I leap off the bridge? You don’t start by leaping off the bridge, he says. If you walk down the street in the daytime you’ll probably walk more confidently than at night – because you can see more, you know more. His point is that if you know more, you can proceed less cautiously.
Never take on fear as a prejudice, he insists: ask the question, will your action really result in danger? The only mechanism these agencies need is the perception of fear, he says. He urges us to test every prejudice we have about what is a risk and what is an opportunity.
His advice to us is: start by leaping off a small stool and move to the next thing when you have confidence.

In question time, Assange outlined allegations of hidden dealings between Google and the US Government (these have been reported in mainstream media this morning); gave a description of WikiLeaks Party organisation and aims; and commented on the value of digital art in our age. Asked by an audience member about how we can preserve “truth, aura and the value of art” (quoting Benjamin), Assange offered these thoughts:

• The benefit of digital art is abundance; reproduceability is a great gain – you can’t enforce scarcity, he says.

• Working within constraints highlights the struggle; and constraints can make for greater work than the freedom to do anything. He describes the work of a group of artists who placed bugs in the Zurich Opera House; and of the Delivery for Mr Assange project, in which a parcel was sent to him at the Ecuadorian Embassy which took photos and posted them online throughout its passage through the mail system.

• Artists are good at stripping away complexity to reveal component parts. He asks, can the surveillance regime be broken down to its essence and re-presented? This kind of work makes complex problems recognisable, he says. Good art sustains curiosity and teaches you something.

ISEA plans to have the entire address available for viewing online within the next couple of weeks.

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