Radical Transparency

This text formed part of the catalogue for the 'Spheres of Influence' exhibition in November 2016 and describes the background and process to building the Wikileaks: A Love Story Installation.

Wikileaks is a collection of documents comprised of secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources. Founded in 2006, and managed by Julian Assange, whose story has become inextricably linked with it, its intention was to create a new kind of reporting, “scientific journalism”, where readers would be able to check the data that sat behind a story in the way that scientists peer review each others research. Information about the Afghanistan and Iraq war and Guantanamo Bay was leaked and turned into award winning stories by outlets such as New York Times and The Guardian. It was seen, as Slavoj Žižek writes, as a ‘good’ secret group attacking a ‘bad’ one (US State Department), upholding transparency and the right to know against the powerful and potentially corrupt. 

However this view is becoming more and more nuanced. There is an enormous amount of information that sits in Wikileaks (over half a million files in the past year or so) organised into 37 rough databases. The website states it will only upload documents that are of “political, diplomatic or ethical significance” but huge amounts of personal and private information has also been published including details of sick children, rape victims and mental health patients. This is because only a small amount of information is read by moderators before being uploaded to the internet by the site in what is increasingly described as being “needlessly reckless and invasive” by a number of commentators. This “hostility to curation” means that for every top secret presentation, there are also hundreds of thousands of more personal, smaller, mundane, everyday stories that have been uploaded and published: HR complaints, gossip, shopping lists – hints of the lives of the people who work at government departments, who, for the most part, will be middle management or administration personnel. 

This installation shows this collision of public and private that sits at the heart of the Wikileaks project. Stacks of printed paper – emails and documents and photographs – show the macro political machinations that most people assume are being revealed by the database. When an iPad is placed above the top of the papers a hidden narrative is revealed to the viewer, a deeply personal love story of a couple who fell in love and then broke up, all found in the emails that were released as part of a data-dump in 2013. The ipad allows the viewer to see the data and information being shifted and parsed before their eyes, before being constructed out of the mess that is the classification system of Wikileaks into a coherent, structured, easy to understand and universal narrative. 

As I see it, Wikileaks is a complex system, trying to balance freedom of information against the right to know. It criticises power without accountability yet through its own failure to address its curation system, perpetuates it, creating an inherent paradox. I have used the sphere model to explore this conflict. The poles of my sphere consist of the concepts of “private” and “public”. On the one hand the sphere can be seen as Wikileaks – each point on the surface is a data dump, some of which can be seen as being more in the public interest to publish than others. On the other hand, the sphere can be seen as a single data dump, the emails, documents and exchanges become the points on its surface, mapped between the poles. For Radical Transparency I navigated through different databases to find a single person, whose correspondence I read almost in its entirety. The installation allows the viewer to see the two poles simultaneously in a literal and metaphorical superposition of the public and the private.