Sunday, 26 March 2017

Meeting Assange in Liverpool

I’m in Liverpool on the day the House of Commons votes to deny the House of Commons a vote on the eventual Brexit deal. Across the Atlantic, the new administration is defending its second attempt at a Muslim ban, while evidence continues to build of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In recent decades the area around the Liverpool docks has benefited from a huge influx of EU money. There’ll be no more where that comes from. Liverpool voted 58% to remain, but nationally the wall-builders prevailed. There’s a fresh wind blowing across the Mersey, but the sun is shining and the crowds are out to shop or eat, or to get a flavour of the city’s trading past among the red brick Victorian warehouses.

I wander into Tate Liverpool where My Bed, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, has drawn a crowd. Tracy Emin’s famously unmade bed with its adjacent clutter stands in the middle of a large gallery room with William Blake illustrations on the walls. A member of the Tate staff, an unpretentious scouser who obviously knows his stuff, is giving a talk that makes the best case I’ve heard for this celebrated piece of conceptual art, presenting it as an exploration, in the tradition of William Blake, of innocence and experience. He’s so good, I’m almost convinced.

Ten minutes’ walk from the Tate, in the historic rope manufacturing district of the city, sandwiched between long, narrow backstreets, I find the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology. FACT makes room for three Picturehouse cinema screens, a bar and a café, as well as its own galleries, all opening off a free-flowing atrium. The leafy café is flooded with sunlight and is clearly drawing the laptop crowd. FACT’s current exhibit, conceived when presidential victory was still no more than a twinkle in Trump’s eye, is startlingly topical. Called How much of this is fiction, its theme is the faking of news and the blurring of lines between truth and propaganda.

Documentary footage, created by US artist Ian Alan Paul, on the imagined EU Bird Migration Authority takes an unsettling look at the policing of human migrants. A Swiss-Austrian artist duo called UBERMORGAN provide a spoof promotional video featuring music actually used by prison guards and interrogators to break down detainees: chart-topping tracks from the “golden era of Torture Music”, featuring over sixty “sweet and painful torture hits” from Metallica to Britney Spears. It manages to be funny and horrifying at the same time. Three minutes of the Meow Mix song, which began life as an advertising jingle for cat food, would make me confess to anything.

Arabian Street Artists in collaboration with filmmakers Field of Vision, provide an inside look at the prank that embarrassed the producers of the Showtime series Homeland. The artists, who were employed to embellish a set representing a Syrian refugee camp with Arabic graffiti, wrote messages such as ‘Homeland is racist’ and ‘This is not my homeland’. Presumably the artists were the only people involved in filming the episode who could read Arabic, because no one noticed until it aired in October 2015. And then a lot of people did.

Last summer, shortly after the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, a website, was launched purporting to advertise an initiative by the National Rifle Association. Customers were promised that “for each handgun purchased, one will be donated to an at-risk American citizen in the urban center of their choice”. Though this offer was a work of fiction, the actual policies of the NRA are sufficiently mad that a lot of people were taken in. The website and the press conference at which The Yes Men, who were behind the satirical project, posed as NRA spokesmen to defend the scheme on philanthropic grounds, is the subject of Share the Safety, 2016.

I end my visit to FACT in Julian Assange’s office in the Ecuadorian Embassy. It stands in the foyer, part of an installation called Delivery for Mr Assange, 2013 by !Medengruppe Bitnik. The brochure informs me that the room, with all its clutter, has been “meticulously constructed entirely from memory” after several visits by the artists. Something about it holds my attention, though it has less identifiable political content than almost anything else in the exhibit. There’s the accumulated equipment you’d expect from an IT geek, though a lot of the laptops piled in a plastic tub on the floor and the mobile phones lined up along the mantelpiece look surprisingly antique. There’s a white shirt hanging on a coat stand and a pair of Chelsea boots by the door. The books suggest that Assange’s reading is eclectic, but he seems to have a special fondness for TC Boyle.

The room has the effect on me that Emin’s bed apparently has on some people. I am aware of an unwelcome intimacy. Being inside this room I’m drawn inside the mind of the absent occupant. My interest is uncomfortably voyeuristic. But the room has a stronger hold on me than the bed, perhaps because Assange has had an impact on the world that more than matches his self-regard.  

There’s an interesting tension between this room and the rest of the exhibition. Assange is an asylum seeker. This place is part prison cell, part sanctuary. He’s also a political activist. But the political purpose of his activism has become increasingly enigmatic. Is he a utopian cyber-anarchist, championing the rights of the individuals to know the secrets of the power elite whatever the consequences, or a self-publicist whose grip on reality has been weakened by his strange incarceration? As a participant in the US election, was he duped by the Putin-Trump alliance or has he been a mole of the pseudo-populist right all along?

Perhaps it isn’t Assange’s fault that, out of all Britain’s recognisable politicians, it was the xenophobe and Trump toady Nigel Farage who recently dropped in for a chat. After all, everyone knows where Assange lives and he’s always at home.  But something must have made it worth Farage’s while to be seen keeping such dangerous company. The meaning of his reconstructed room seems as dynamically mutable as Assange’s identity. 

I leave FACT with a fresh perspective on contemporary events. Physically it’s easy to miss. As a tourist destination, its location can’t rival the Tate’s, overlooking the water of the old Albert Dock. But closer to the heart of the city, it has a vibrancy that makes the detour worthwhile. 

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