Wikileaks-Sponsored ‘States of Violence’ Exhibition Undermines Its Own Democratic Ambitions

Earlier this spring, the London nonprofit a/political and the Hamburg-based Wau Holland Foundation held the exhibition “States of Violence” in partnership with the whistleblowing NGO Wikileaks. The show, housed at a former meat processing factory in South London and displaying the work of 16 politically active artists and collectives, had an admirable aim: to defend free speech and condemn state-sanctioned brutality.

But the selection of artworks—which included pieces by figures known well beyond the art world like Ai Weiwei and Forensic Architecture—risked undermining the show’s democratic ambitions by indulging in ghoulish, conspiracy-adjacent suggestions about who holds power and why. “States of Violence” is then a product and embodiment of the complexities of political art today.

It’s only possible to make and display works that condemn the inner corruption of liberal democracies by using the very freedoms codified in those same liberal democracies, even if they fail to live up to their own standards in so many other ways.

There’s a strange, backhanded generosity at work here: unless self-espoused radicals openly seek to commit acts of terrorism or violence, the liberal state doesn’t crush people motivated by insurrectionary energies that might want to get rid of the state; rather, it disempowers them, allowing them to exist in and only in art, a space of social and political detachment that can’t really do much.

The life-size marble statue of Silencio (Royal Courts of Justice) (2023) by Spanish collective Democracia, for example, is a very literal take on the idea that conformity is ensured by ferocious threats from law enforcement officers. This statue presents a steely-gazed police officer in riot gear bearing guns, with ammunition belts tied to his waist, pressing his finger to his lips.

The idea that any government, with its monopoly on violence, would or could employ other tactics seems, at best, overly optimistic about what a future society might be like and, at worst, credulous about the nature of the power it wants to criticise. Perhaps this forgets Michel Foucault’s amusing twist on Carl von Clausewitz’s famous, but often misquoted, statement: “Politics is the continuation of war by other means.”

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