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WikiLeaks and David Wojnarowicz: A Perspective from Berlin

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In Berlin after World War I, after the horrors of trench warfare and a nearly complete collapse of the social structure, the freedom arose, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, to create and bring forward innovative forms of art directly confronting sexual, racial, political, and cultural norms.

This artistic license soon also, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, disappeared. For a short while, between the end of imperial censorship with the Kaiser's abdication in 1918 and Hitler's elimination of free expression in the early 1930s, the artists of the Weimar Republic reworked, often brilliantly, our most basic assumptions about how we express ourselves and how we communicate with each other.

Studying the culture of the Weimar period as a Fulbright Research Fellow makes me keenly aware that centralized power can react with brutality, but also with great sophistication, against what threatens its control of the means of representation. Unchecked, it can eradicate expression it considers out of bounds; and it can sever all the critical lines of communication.

I am a news junkie. When not doing research or simply enjoying my time in Berlin, I find myself often perusing The Huffington Post. I appreciate this internet newspaper not only because it delivers what I consider to be relevant news, but also because, likes WikiLeaks, it represents the future shape of journalism, of public communication.

Two news topics recently grabbed my attention: WikiLeaks and David Wojnarowicz. As I read the abundant commentary following the leaks of US government secrets and the censorship of an artist who matters deeply to me, I was struck that I could find no one, on The Huffington Post or elsewhere, connecting the two. It seemed to me that together, they tell us a lot about our current historical moment, both its possibilities and its dangers.

Photomontage was invented in Weimar Berlin -- in Berlin Dada, to be exact. The photomontagist cuts images and words out of newspapers and popular magazines, samples from advertisements, feature stories, covers, and so forth. She rearranges these snippets to say something quite different than what they formerly meant to say. This procedure is a form of critique: the photomontage provides us a critical distance to reflect on what we had been prompted to desire, whether it was a luxury product, an ideal of feminine beauty, a racial superiority, or an entire way of life. Perhaps I merely follow an innovation that intrigues me: what, after all, have leaked diplomatic cables and graphic war footage to do with a queer multimedia artist dead for almost twenty years? And what has any of this to do with German history?

Let's start with censorship. WikiLeaks exposes what governments and corporations don't want us to see, what they would censor from public view. WikiLeaks takes away power's ability to conceal its operations, however trivial they may often be. And power reacts bluntly. The US government works intensively to shut WikiLeaks down, to shut it up. Yet because no actual crime, as defined by national or international law, has been committed -- and because of the inconvenience of the First Amendment -- official efforts have to be roundabout.

The Obama administration intimidates companies to stop financial and network services, redeploys President Bush's rhetoric of terror against the Internet, issues subpoenas. Unofficially, various political leaders, apparently trying to out-bully the president, call for Assange's extrajudicial assassination. Wikileaks has cut apart the stories that the power wants to tell. Power -- government, corporate, even media power -- works compulsively to reseize control of the narrative. It would frame WikiLeaks as a terrorist operation, or cast the WikiLeaks leader, Julian Assange, as a demoniacal madman, the successor of Saddam Hussein.

So far, at least, these efforts are failing: WikiLeaks continues to publish.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, David Wojnarowicz brought into view realities that many Americans did not want to see. He presented male homoeroticism graphically, just the sort of depictions that Jesse Helms loudly denounced as "sick" on the congressional floor. Wojnarowicz also rendered visible the pain of people who lived and died with AIDS in an unsupportive American society, a society that treated demonizations of queers and death wishes against people living with AIDS as valid points of view.

In his paintings, sculptures, photomontages, writing, photography, and videos, Wojnarowicz confronted the political and religious powers he viewed as murderous. Though not as notorious as Robert Mapplethorpe, he too was a direct target of an art censorship campaign in Congress and far-right religious groups, part of a struggle that has come to be known as the Culture Wars.

If homoerotic art could not be censored on the grounds of obscenity -- this effort failed against Mapplethorpe in conservative Cincinnati -- then government sources of funding could be withdrawn and institutions could be intimidated not to display the work. Now, it might seem that things in America have totally changed. After all, lesbians and gays appear regularly in popular media. We have lesbian sitcom characters and openly gay actors. The National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution even opened an exhibition, entitled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," focusing heavily on homoerotic expression. And while conservative and religious leaders, as we must expect, strongly objected to the exhibition, it went forward.

Yet the Smithsonian administration made one awkward bow to power, deciding to censor a single exhibit, one judged particularly onerous: David Wojnarowicz's video, A Fire in My Belly. Decades earlier, the cultural warriors of the right brought publicity and intense attention to the very artists they sought to censor; in a similar manner, the cowardice of the Smithsonian has caused A Fire in My Belly to go viral, like a WikiLeaks dissemination. The video is now on display at museums and computer screens across the country.

Let's move on to sex. What seems to elicit the charge of sacrilege against A Fire in My Belly is the image of a crucified Christ covered with ants, even though renditions of Jesus' abasement have been standard fare in Christian art for two millennia. The video also features a man masturbating. It is not a single image, but this juxtaposition, that retains the power to disturb.

WikiLeaks has released, to the best of my knowledge, no images of diplomats masturbating, yet here again, sex plays a pivotal role. There is no clear crime involved in publishing secrets provided by a whistleblower, regardless of the government's intention to invent a new crime that works retroactively. Rape is, however, certainly and almost universally a crime. It is somewhat difficult to smear an organization that has the clearly stated mission of "bringing important news and information to the public... an innovative, secure and anonymous way for independent sources around the world to leak information," that publishes "material of ethical, political and historical significance."

Power shifts into the ad hominem mode, attempting to discredit the ideas by attacking the man purportedly behind them, Julian Assange. He is accused of, though not actually charged with, raping two women in Sweden. Whatever the validity of the accusations -- here is not the place to argue about the anomalies -- government and corporate powers are using the allegations to discredit the man and, by proxy, the organization (as well as to apprehend Assange). Everyone knows that American morality is deeply tied to sex. AIDS was not treated like any other disease because of its primary mode of transmission in the United States, male-to-male anal sex. The logic of the crusade against Assange seems to be that he cannot be treated like any other journalist, if he is also a sex criminal.

My final point of comparison is art. A hard-line art conservative might argue that A Fire in My Belly is not The Virgin of the Rocks, but after a century of modern art, most of us should have little difficulty classifying Wojnarowicz's productions as such. Yet Wojnarowicz was very much dedicated to the same truth-telling mission that inspires WikiLeaks. "The people who control the means of image production," he writes in Close to the Knives, "are the ones who are in power." "I have a desire," he states, "to open up certain boundaries and release information that unties the psychic ropes that bind" the nation.

But is WikiLeaks art? I'm not sure that WikiLeaks or Assange would agree with me, but my answer is a definitive "yes." WikiLeaks calls itself "innovative," and I agree. This innovation reads to me as an Internet Age version of photomontage. By changing what is at stake in expression and communication, WikiLeaks promises to alter very realities with which it works -- and indeed, has already begun to do so.

It does no good to compare contemporary leaders to Nazis, nor do I wish to put down today's America as the second Weimar failure, doomed to repeat modern history's greatest tragedy. What fascinates me about Weimar Germany is the incredible potential that leaps out at me from its images, its documents, and its legacy. Much of this potential was never realized. Maybe we have a chance again today.