PAPER is proud to present this conversation between an affiliation of artists and activists and Chelsea Manning -- the former military intelligence analyst who is currently two years into a 35-year sentence (less a credit of roughly three years) at the military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for furnishing WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of classified or sensitive documents. In the following exchange, conducted via US mail and encrypted web platforms, Manning takes questions from electronic-music artists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst; design duo Metahaven, aka Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk; and Web-activist Jacob Appelbaum. Together, they weigh the strictures and possibilities not just of government, but of technology, culture and gender.
Jacob Appelbaum: This is Jacob. I am an American by birth and for the last two years, I have been living in exile in Berlin as a reward for my work with WikiLeaks and The Tor Project.
Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst: Hi, this is Holly and Mat. We are musicians who are interested in creating new fantasies for new realities.
Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk: Hi, we are Daniel and Vinca of Metahaven, an Amsterdam-based group of designers who are interested in identifying radical aesthetics with progressive politics.
We collaborate on numerous projects together. Most recently, we designed a "FREE CHELSEA MANNING" T-shirt that contained the slogan "INFILTRATE WITH LOVE." We first sold the shirt at a packed concert in Berlin we played recently, and were able to deliver a speech in honor of those who have taken a stand for transparency and compassion. It was a beautiful evening. We have managed to raise thousands of euros so far, and all proceeds are being donated to your legal defense fund. As may be clear from our questions, we are interested in other ways we might help you in our capacities as public artists, designers, journalists and activists.
Herndon & Dyhurst: We see our digital selves as emotionally integrated with our physical selves, which we try to represent through our work aesthetically. Has your relationship to your digital self or your avatar changed since your incarceration, in that your avatar is able to interact with the public through Twitter?
My relationship with my digital self has changed a lot over the last few years of incarceration. I feel that my digital representation -- my avatar, as you put it -- has been restricted by the various filters that I've had imposed on it, first throughout my initial confinement at Quantico, Virginia, then through my court-martial, and now my time here at Fort Leavenworth. It -- or rather she -- has been through several changes, including gender, voice, and frequency and intensity of interaction. Beyond the obvious physical disconnection with me, personally -- she has been filtered through the administrative restrictions -- mostly military-specific -- imposed on what I can and can't say through her. It can be frustrating, but the challenge is absolutely worth it.
Kruk & van der Velden: The American philosopher and activist Cornel West has said about whistle-blowing that "justice must be rescued by something deeper than justice, namely love"; "justice is what love looks like in public"; "you're a militant for gentleness"; "a subversive for sweetness"; "a radical for tenderness." This pretty much sums up how we feel about you! Do West's words resonate with you?
I don't consider myself a "radical." In fact, none of Cornell West's statements come across as radical to me. Radical in American society has, I think, become this buzzword that makes a lot of ideas and discussions seem foreign or new to people -- whether for or against them. Is it radical to seek justice? Is it radical to be rescued by love? Is it subversive to be sweet? I think if you go around the country and ask people they will almost universally agree -- at least in principle. Instead of trying to be "radical"; I just try to be true to myself! Is it radical to be true to yourself? Maybe it is? I don't know, but it just makes sense to me, haha!
Appelbaum: The African National Congress and their allies struggled for nearly 100 earth years before they brought post-racial democracy to South Africa. The resistance movement against apartheid, just as apartheid itself, cost lives. Looking at Aaron Swartz, Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, Edward Snowden, Sarah Harrison, Julian Assange and yourself, one asks oneself, Is our struggle of this magnitude? Is this only the start of things with darker times to come, or are things starting to turn around, where we can see the dark times as a matter of history?
I believe that we are just at the very beginning of a new epoch. I've believed this for a very longtime, probably starting around my early teens when I was really spending a lot of time online to "escape" my life -- school, bullying, my awkward relationship with family, my gender identity -- at night. I think that with ubiquitous and total access to highly connected information technology, and with ubiquitous digital and robotic automation, and with increasingly elegant and intuitive human/machine interfacing we are slowly beginning to blur the lines between the concepts that have seemed so separate for generations, such as the relationships between gender, sexuality, art and work. As we begin to ascend into a new era -- which sometimes includes ideas of "transhumanism" and the information, economic and technological "singularity" -- perhaps we are going to begin to slowly embrace, or fear, a post-human world? If it happens quickly enough, we might even find out ourselves!
A Wikimedia image of the military prison at Fort Leavenworth
Kruk & van der Velden: In a push for a more just, less hierarchical social and political model, with more solidarity, maybe what we need are new and unexpected coalitions. Maybe there is such a coalition around you, consisting of people (including ourselves) who feel deeply inspired and touched by your work, who care about you and publicly support you. We also need new shared actions for a more horizontally democratic and thriving community embracing progress, crypto, complexity and beauty. What could a next chapter be, and who should meet and form coalitions?
I absolutely believe that there is a coalition that is forming. I don't think it's new or unexpected at all though. It's the coalition of humanity! We've been slowly acting and encouraging and inspiring and discovering for thousands of years, and we're only just scratching the surface. I think that we've been realizing the existence of structural and institutional problems in our society for millennia, and challenging them and improving them -- especially in the last five hundred years or so. As for our next chapter, it's already starting to happen. We're starting to realize that there are other people who don't look like us or experience the world like us that actually think and feel the same way that we do. Its' an incredible leap for humanity to start to break down the automatic factionalism that gender, race, sexuality, and culture have been the basis of since time immemorial. In America, we can see this with all the different vectors and factions that are starting to align with each other in a way that doesn't fit into a "one size fits all" category. This will continue at an exponential rate, I hope.
Herndon & Dryhurst: Since your avatar plays such a vital role in your participation at the moment, how do you feel about platforms such as Facebook not allowing people to choose their own identities online, including name and gender? Is it liberating to use an illustration instead of a photograph to represent yourself online?
Facebook's policies are a reflection of their unique history -- first as a Boston/Cambridge area student social media site -- and current business model. I think that their targeted advertising and "big data" search filters require taking discrete and "accurate" -- from the perspective of their advertising clients -- data for tracking and analysis. This is why they do what they do, and why such big institutions resist allowing us to define ourselves, because it takes away from their power -- either directly, especially in the case of governments, or indirectly, as in social media's advertising models.
Appelbaum: In a struggle for the Internet -- which represents in a sense, a civil society in an ideal form -- what are the actions each person might take, and what are the values that we should work to attain as realities? In the varied Cypherpunk communities, we see a trend of running Tor relays, of using encryption for communications, for writing and using Free Software for Freedom. What should we do to declare our independence from anti-democratic forces seeking to monitor, to censor, to tamper and even to eradicate other humans?
I think it's an odd paradox that technology is providing for us. We are more diverse and open as a society -- yet we also seem to be more homogenous and insecure than ever before. I think that today's technology certainly provide tools that can be used to declare a kind of digital independence from institutional control through monitoring, censorship, and political -- and physical -- eradication. But, I don't think these tools are any more necessary than they are without them. We can still be independent without technology. Some people might even find their independence in embracing the Luddite philosophy and shunning technology. Ultimately though, in this constant technological arms race, we are always only one breakthrough away from making our methods to get past such institutions irrelevant or unusable. We might wake up tomorrow and find out that the Riemann hypothesis has been solved by some brilliant person or group of people, suddenly making most of our encryption algorithms weak -- or we might wake up tomorrow and find out that a six-to-ten-qubit quantum computer has been built, accomplishing the same thing! My point is, technology only takes us so far. For me, the most important element is the human one -- let's try not to forget that!
Dewey-Hagborg's portrait began with the processing of DNA harvested from cheek swabs and hair clippings sent from prison; photograph by Thomas Dexter
Appelbaum: Your situation is intolerable and beyond reason; you sit in prison for thirty-five years while those who carried out torture, murder and other war crimes walk American streets freely. While many fight to free you, the system is simply stacked against us all. Given these restraints, what are the specific things that we could do or rally around to improve your situation?
You can certainly work toward improving my situation by donating to my legal defense fund. We're working on a lot of big issues in my case -- which has the potential to become landmark precedent in the American jurisprudence system -- that affect a lot of people in America. It's so very important that they get help too. Paying the legal bills is the biggest logistical hurdle to that at this point. Ultimately though, keeping me motivated -- because sometimes it can get pretty tough emotionally -- and ensuring that people haven't forgotten just how important this case is for our ensuring that our rights are protected in our society, will certainly work toward that end as well.
Herndon & Dyhurst: How might we, or others, use art to ensure that the things that you and others expose are not in vain?
Read everything. Absorb everything that is out there and act as your own filter. Hunt down your own answers to questions. This is the only advice that is actually worth anything. If you don't read these things yourself, then you can't say that you truly understand what humanity has done, and where we are going. We can't spend our lives getting spoon-fed all of our information every day and then expect to understand our world. Only then will you understand that people are still hurting and dying in the world around us.
Herndon & Dyhurst: London-based economist Guy Standing writes about the left's collective need for paradisic alternatives to our contemporary conditions, something that the right has understood for some time. We see our art practice as an arena to develop and enact new fantasies -- without relying on nostalgia or past ideals. What would be your idea of a paradise politics? What are your fantasies for the future?
It's difficult to say what my kind of political paradise or utopia would look like. I mean, given the fact that humanity has thus far managed to avoid it, yet still improve upon it, a practical and realistic vision of utopia is, I think, currently beyond our biologically imposed ability to construct or comprehend. I do believe that three things would likely contribute to a situation in which we might figure it out: an abundance-based economy where energy and matter are never scarce, virtually instant and infinite access to every other person and all the available information in such a society, and a wisdom or insight that allows such a society to act in harmony. Is it possible? I don't know. I guess we'll find out, won't we?
For our interview with artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg about the making of her Chelsea Manning portrait, click here. To donate to Chelsea Manning's defense fund, go here.
Many thanks to David E. Coombs, Madison Donzis and Melissa Keith for their logistical help with this story.