This is a story about two bad boys. One, Julian Assange, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than three years. The other, the artist Ai Weiwei, has done his time in detention too – nearly three months’ solitary confinement in 2011 in an undisclosed location in Beijing. They’re friends: last year, while Ai was over for his big show at the Royal Academy, they posted a joint selfie on Instagram, both sticking a finger up to the Man. There’s comradeship between celebrity dissidents. Sometimes this is practical: Sarah Harrison, Assange’s right-hand woman, flew to Sheremetyevo airport to help navigate Edward Snowden safely and legally into Moscow and get him a residency permit after his leaks broke in the summer of 2013. Sometimes it’s more nebulous: outlaws bond, as we know from the movies, and in any case stars – out of reach and incomprehensible to humans – have a better time with each other than with ordinary mortals. After all, you appreciate, they can compare experiences the rest of the world will never understand.
I have no beef with the friendship, if that’s what it is. But I don’t really know if that is what it is – all I have to go on is an Instagram picture, and WikiLeaks’s three million followers, some of whom tweeted to applaud their expression of solidarity. I am, I realise, not unlike a reader of the Sun, who gets snapshot reports of the doings of the famous through possibly planted stories about who’s getting it on with whom. Like a Sun reader, I’m not stupid: I know that not everything I read is true, but I also know that celestial bodies are bodies all the same, and it’s good to have them brought down to earth. Yet I also know that there’s something weird about celebrating the very visible fame – the singularity – of people whose mission it is to protest injustices that affect large sections of the world’s population: in Assange’s case, for instance, the publication of the military logs on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; in Ai’s, the documentation of repressive and destructive acts by the Chinese state. You can’t help becoming famous if you do famous deeds. The trouble comes when there’s a confusion about what exactly should be celebrated: the doer or the done.
Last week, Ai, who recently opened a studio on Lesbos in solidarity with those landing on the shore, issued a photograph of himself on one of the island’s beaches. It’s black and white and arty, and Instagram-square, and he’s lying on his stomach on the stones in imitation of the body of Aylan Kurdi, the dead three-year-old Syrian boy whose image seemed to catalyse the campaign of sympathy for refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere last year. Ai is a great bear of a man, and he looks as little like a three-year-old boy as it’s possible to look. Unlike the image it’s modelled on, it’s nice, and totally boring to look at. But – as with Aylan Kurdi – you can’t get away from the body.
Ai’s Royal Academy exhibition, which Brian Dillon wrote about in the LRB of 8 October 2015, was – to me – a confusing combination of the documentary (records of the children killed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake), and the bigging-up of this already big artist himself: this vast, shaggy man who in three life-size freeze-frame shots drops a Han dynasty vase so that it shatters; who in a video clip excitedly chases his small child round the studio the authorities built for him before Beijing changed its mind and demolished it (he celebrated by inviting supporters to a dinner of river crabs, a dinner he commemorated at the RA by commissioning a few thousand porcelain crustaceans). Dillon and others suggested all this was a tribute to Duchamp and his readymades, but all I could see was Ai, and his bearishly huggable self.
These were, more than anything else, performance pieces, pieces about the artist, especially in the last big room, which compellingly arrayed a series of 3D dioramas representing Ai’s 81-day imprisonment at a scale of 2:1: wax models of a miniature Ai being monitored by green-clad guards – you climbed up steps (following an excited queue) to peer in at him being interrogated, eating, sleeping, having a shower, sitting on the toilet. The man himself, demanding to be looked at: the installation seemed to be meant – unsettlingly – to cast the viewer in the role of the all-seeing prison guard, policing every moment of a detainee’s confinement. But that wasn’t what looking at it was like at all. You had the pleasingly sociable experience of smiling at other impatient gallery-goers as you each waited your turn to get a glimpse through the spyholes into the little big man’s life. You were happily paying the price of a ticket for rare snapshots into what it was really like to be Ai, at that famous time, when he was arbitrarily detained for inciting subversion. It’s easy to see why this is confusing. One reason Ai Weiwei isn’t Lenin is that Lenin didn’t build his own mausoleum.
In its early days, when it began releasing information that governments would rather had been kept secret, WikiLeaks was a faceless organisation, staffed – we could assume – by an army of anonymous volunteers. Gradually, of course, it came to be represented by a single face: the striking, ghostly one of Julian Assange. It wasn’t Assange’s fault that – in 2010, not long after he released the video he called Collateral Murder, showing US Apache helicopters firing on unarmed civilians in Baghdad – the world wanted to know who he was. It isn’t Assange’s fault that he needs to keep himself close to the surface of the news: he has been inside the same building for – the counter on WikiLeaks currently reads – 1886 days and nights, and, like Scheherazade, if he doesn’t keep telling stories, he’ll disappear. But the phenomenon that was WikiLeaks depended on facelessness and anonymity. Not only for pragmatic reasons – leakers and whistleblowers have to be allowed the security of invisibility if they are to risk releasing dangerous secrets – but for reasons, too, of effective dissent.
Information that appears online contextlessly, suddenly, without warning, great masses of it, with no author or attribution and no clue about how many thousands of secret documents the next day will bring, is a great affront to power. The next leaker could be anywhere, or anyone, or everyone. For years – since 1996, still the early days of the world wide web – a site, www.cryptome.org, has been quietly humming away, publishing endless revealing secret documents (or at least not necessarily public documents) from sources of all kinds, often several times a week. Cryptome isn’t entirely faceless: it’s run by a man called John Young, a Vietnam-era radical and a practising architect in New York, now in his eighties. But he’s a cantankerous repeller of journalists and keeps himself to himself. And the website – plain red links on a white page – is the model of the way a secret-leaking outfit should operate. Or of the way I’d like it to operate: since barely anyone has actually heard of Cryptome, perhaps a bit of celebrity endorsement is necessary if word is to get around.
Assange takes care to manage – or tries to manage – the stories about him. He needs to, because there are a lot of them about, not all of them fair: the sexual predator, the prima donna, the egotist, the reckless betrayer. And, after all, when he ran out of secrets, his image was all he had left. Since he first exploded into view, those in the secret-disclosing business who are sticking it to the Man have understood that once you’ve burned up those secrets, you’re faced with a choice. Either you go supernova, like Snowden, or – like Assange – you turn into a black hole.