Earlier this spring, the London nonprofit a/political and the Hamburg-based Wau Holland Foundation held the exhibition “States of Violence” in partnership with the whistleblowing NGO Wikileaks. The show, housed at a former meat processing factory in South London and displaying the work of 16 politically active artists and collectives, had an admirable aim: to defend free speech and condemn state-sanctioned brutality.
But the selection of artworks—which included pieces by figures known well beyond the art world like Ai Weiwei and Forensic Architecture—risked undermining the show’s democratic ambitions by indulging in ghoulish, conspiracy-adjacent suggestions about who holds power and why. “States of Violence” is then a product and embodiment of the complexities of political art today.
It’s only possible to make and display works that condemn the inner corruption of liberal democracies by using the very freedoms codified in those same liberal democracies, even if they fail to live up to their own standards in so many other ways.
There’s a strange, backhanded generosity at work here: unless self-espoused radicals openly seek to commit acts of terrorism or violence, the liberal state doesn’t crush people motivated by insurrectionary energies that might want to get rid of the state; rather, it disempowers them, allowing them to exist in and only in art, a space of social and political detachment that can’t really do much.
The life-size marble statue of Silencio (Royal Courts of Justice) (2023) by Spanish collective Democracia, for example, is a very literal take on the idea that conformity is ensured by ferocious threats from law enforcement officers. This statue presents a steely-gazed police officer in riot gear bearing guns, with ammunition belts tied to his waist, pressing his finger to his lips.
The idea that any government, with its monopoly on violence, would or could employ other tactics seems, at best, overly optimistic about what a future society might be like and, at worst, credulous about the nature of the power it wants to criticise. Perhaps this forgets Michel Foucault’s amusing twist on Carl von Clausewitz’s famous, but often misquoted, statement: “Politics is the continuation of war by other means.”
Throughout the exhibition, however, there is one overriding motivation.
For four years, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been incarcerated in London’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison, often called “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay” for detaining terrorism suspects long-term without charge. Assange faces extradition to the United States, possibly leading to a 175-year prison sentence under the 1917 Espionage Act for his role in publishing classified US military intelligence, Iraq War–era army field reports and, most important for this exhibition, “Cablegate”: vast numbers of embarrassing classified diplomatic cables sent to the US State Department from hundreds of its consulates between December 1966 and February 2010.
To that end, the exhibition features Institute for Dissent and Datalove’s Secret+NoForn (2022), the biggest-ever physical publication of the secret Wikileaks cables in the UK. The work consists of 66 volumes of material, printed in hardback with stark black-and-white covers placed in one ordered row on a shelf. The covers inform the viewer that the material makes up 6.2 percent of the total leaks in chronological order. This is significant for two reasons: One is the possibility of displaying politically relevant information—which isn’t art —in the form of the minimalist serial object. The other is the specific political issue it raises, which permits new readings of other works in the exhibition.
The blunt rigidity of Secret+NoForn would be effective if it didn’t overcomplicate itself, but it does something much more alarming. It shows the sheer mass of troubling information out there: a paper trail that implies not only that it knows what really goes on behind the scenes of global power, but that we can know this too, at the same time withholding it from us. Looking at this work alone tells us nothing, and there’s little chance any viewer is going to read even one volume of the cables. However, even if we did, and even if this compromises the work’s integrity as a minimalist object there only for contemplation, the consequences activate a disturbing legal problem.
More than the antiauthoritarian impulses behind the other works on display here, Secret+NoForn offers viewers a frisson of what we might call “performative illegality.” Although the material is accessible online, and is the basis for some reporters’ output, accessing that information alone makes the public complicit in the crime of which Assange is accused. Reading the documents for ourselves is illegal. We risk arrest. The exhibition space provides no legal protection. The aura of the art object is not a force field against the kind of violence implied by the other works on view like, say, Democracia’s sculpture or the 24 photographs of jailed activists in Santiago Sierra’s Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain (2018).
At the very least, Secret+NoForn shares a certain structure with Wonderland (2014/22)by South African artist Kendell Geers, even if the latter isn’t exactly another version of this problem. This text work reads here lies truth in black capital letters rendered in charred wood against a dibond mirror panel ground. As a tautology, it’s deceptive, since obviously there is no truth to be found here unless it’s endlessly deferred in a chain of self-reference. As a gravestone, however, marking the death of free speech or artistic expression, it could well share in the naivety of “States of Violence” as a whole.
Geers’s “Wonderland” series powerfully mourns political and artistic truths that were never told in the first place; it alleges we have lost something but can’t tell us when we had it. Perhaps this implies that lying in politics is something new, as if the big and allegedly noble lies endorsed in Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s Prince, or by the students of Leo Strauss, had never been picked up by those who really do wield power. This despite Hitler and Goebbels, Richard Nixon, or what in the UK is known as the “dodgy dossier” that justified the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, claiming that the tyrant Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction.”
Wonderland retains some of the troubling reflexive structure of Secret+NoForn but keeps it within the strict boundaries of the freedoms lovingly bestowed on us by liberal democracies because looking at the artist’s claim doesn’t implicate us in any other activity than looking at a work of art. Nobody is going to get in trouble for thinking that truth is dead or that art plays a role here. Not yet anyway.
However, Ai Weiwei’s “Study of Perspective” (1995–2003), a series of nine photographs showing the artist pointing an insolent middle finger at various sites of state power, shows us acts of defiance performed in some places where such freedoms do not reside, where the government really can lock you up and do unspeakable things to you if you say or do as you please.
Among the notable locations in “Study of Perspective” are St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Reichstag in Berlin, the White House in Washington, D.C., and the Houses of Parliament in London. As such, Ai decries the Catholic Church, Nazism (probably), and the duplicity of liberal democracies. But he also flips his finger at locations in China, where the consequences of doing so are considerably graver, the implicit moral equivalency muddling his intent. The police station in the city of Chengdu is one thing; Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese People’s Armed Police are said to have killed anywhere from hundreds to several thousand democratic protesters in June 1989 (no precise figures exist), is something else.
Picking up and reading Secret+NoForn in London might get you in trouble, but the Metropolitan Police Service aren’t likely to kick down the doors and arrest you, whatever their other disgraces over the years. Ai’s risk is much more serious.
Santiago Sierra’s Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain, meanwhile, names dissidents even if it doesn’t show their faces. This collection of 24 low-resolution black-and-white photographs displays politicians, activists, artists, and journalists imprisoned by the Spanish State for a variety of reasons, including some activists’ support for Catalan independence. Each of the accused faces is heavily pixelated so it appears on the cusp of anonymity, dead to the world.
Under each photograph are details of the accusations against them, how they were arrested, and the sentence imposed. This serves a vital democratic function. Even if the viewer disagrees with what these individuals think or are accused of doing, or differs from their political commitments, it’s extremely important for citizens of liberal democracies to know who they are and what charges they face so the state can even aspire to the legal transparency it claims.
Perhaps anger is the first political emotion. And perhaps the specific feeling captured by “States of Violence” first bloomed around 1966, the time of the earliest documents included in the Cablegate leaks. Its full political ambience was, however, probably first on show in Seattle in 1999 as anti-globalization anarchists demonstrated against the World Trade Organization. And though “States of Violence” performs a welcome gesture—acting against but still within the liberal state to sink dreams of militancy into art—and points to the hypocrisies on which the legal legitimacy of those states partially rests, the furtively rebellious mood comes with a taste of radicalism that nevertheless tends to be politically impotent in practice.