Response to Hans Ulrich Obrist, In Conversation With Julian Assange
Artists care about things. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what issues they’re interested in through the fog of irony, glittery kittens, and coded language that defines their work. Access to artwork within the creative commons is an unavoidable issue; just how much work should be made available online abandons notions of autonomy and secrecy. The downside: it can make seeing work in-person fall flat. The studio or gallery visit has given rise to plenty of times when I’ve wanted to utter, “It looked better on my laptop.”
E-flux journal has published a two-part interview, “Hans Ulrich Obrist, In Conversation with Julian Assange.” In the second interview, artists as well as Obrist submitted questions to Wikileaks’ founder. Some questions prod Assange for details about the organization’s structure: How many people are working for you now? Do you regret becoming the face of WikiLeaks? These generalized questions are boring, reflecting the public’s inquiring gaze on Assange’s impenetrable ego and his controversial role as a public face for an organization that maintains anonymity for its sources. These questions could have been asked by anyone.
The interview becomes more interesting when the conversation turns to Wikileaks’ emergent behavior. Wikileaks emergent behavior. Any system exhibits emergent behavior when it exists autonomously, without the guiding hand of its creator or the string of code that initially defined it. Since its founding, Wikileaks has become a lightning rod for issues that lead away from the organization’s simply stated mission to “bring important news and information to the public” and to “provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists.”
Assange, in response to Martha Rosler’s question “Is journalism a public good, and if so, should it be non-commercial?” brings up how digital media and journalism is cloneable. Cloneable information refers to things that can be easily copied and distributed, how “with a news story or a work of fiction, the cost of producing another digital copy is essentially zero.” Shortages of cloneable media would be difficult to imagine given the ease with which any near replica can be produced. Due to this plausibly infinite supply of information, it should, according to Assange, be accessed as a “public good.”
“The cloneable” might seem like a new term for an old idea – Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction. In contrast to the large, bureaucratic structures that make assembly line production possible to make yet another cup, vehicle, or soccer ball, minimal resources are needed to repost a photo to Tumblr or link to an article, and with exceptional speed.
A clone shares its genetic information with a parent organism. Science fiction movies have provided more than enough instances of how to creatively imagine the consequences of cloning and artificial intelligence.
More often than not, the creative imaginary advocates on behalf of clones. Regardless of sharing the same DNA, a clone always wants to be and will be different from its parent. The cloneable, then, expresses emergent behavior, unlike something that’s mechanically reproduced. Although both things, say a soccer ball and a YouTube clip, are inanimate, the ability to copy, cut, and transform the latter with ease skews toward the infinite. The cloneable is a better metaphor for the circulation and distribution of digital media than mechanical reproduction. It’s time to start fresh.
Image: Christopher Meerdo, a single envelope out of a stack of approximately 200 envelopes visualizing Wikileaks’ insurance.aes256 file