I’m sitting at Julian Assange‘s desk, surrounded by WikiLeaks papers and blinking servers. Assange’s black leather shoes rest on the floor. There’s a glass of whiskey nearby and snacks scattered across the table.
The only thing missing is the WikiLeaks founder himself.
On June 19, it will be five years since Assange placed himself under self-imposed house arrest in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Sitting in his office, I want to know what it’s like being confined the way he is. And I want to know what it means for someone living under the strain of isolation to hold such influence over a world spinning on outside his window.
The thing is, I’m not in Assange’s actual office. I’m in rainy Liverpool, England, some 200 miles from London where Assange is famously holed up. Here, at the FACT art centre, two artists have erected what they say is a perfect scale re-creation of the tiny room where the WikiLeaks founder has lived, worked and conspired to shape world events since 2012.
Seeing Assange hiding out in the embassy, artists Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, collectively known as Mediengruppe Bitnik, decided to slip him a message. In January 2013 they sent a parcel to the embassy containing a hidden camera, which snapped pictures of its journey and automatically posted them to Twitter. When Assange opened the package, he obligingly posed for the camera.
Contact established, the artists visited the embassy and met with Assange throughout 2013. They weren’t allowed to photograph anything, but they claim to have meticulously recorded and reconstructed every detail of Assange’s 43-square-foot sanctuary. Exhibited in Liverpool earlier this year, where visitors could explore the fake office for free, their re-creation will next be displayed at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland.
I went to Liverpool to get a better sense of a man some call a champion of free speech and transparency, and others denounce as a renegade — or even a puppet of Russia — who enables traitors and spies to serve his own political agenda.
A life in limbo
Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy, a modest red brick building tucked away behind posh department store Harrods, in June 2012. The Australia-born WikiLeaks founder claimed diplomatic asylum to avoid an international arrest warrant issued in Sweden two years earlier over alleged sexual offenses.
He refused to submit to questioning about the allegations, saying that if he was extradited to Sweden he might subsequently be turned over to the United States, where he faces the more daunting prospect of prosecution for, charges that could lead to decades in prison.
The 45-year-old computer programmer has remained ever since in this strange sanctum somewhere between the White House and the Kremlin, cut off from his children and the wider world. During his self-imposed exile, Wikileaks has revealed a US intelligence agency wiretapped German leader Angela Merkel, published thousands of behind-the-scenes emails from and revealed CIA secrets in the .
Then last month, something huge happened: Swedish prosecutors dropped the sexual assault investigation that prompted Assange’s flight from authorities. Yet he remains in his bolthole. If he steps outside he’ll be collared by law enforcement on a lesser charge of jumping bail. British police officers have stood watch outside his door at a cost to UK taxpayers estimated at £13 million between 2012 and 2015 alone ($16.8 million or AU$22.3 million).
If he’s nicked by British bobbies, extradition to the US becomes a real possibility. So paradoxically, now that the original charges have been dropped, Assange’s position is even more uncertain. His life in limbo continues.
Another day at the office
I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into Julian Assange’s office.
Broadcasts from the embassy, as well as photos, YouTube videos and even a TV series, offer a look over his shoulder and a rough idea of what his inner sanctum looks like. But now, standing in this replica, it becomes real. The Ecuadorian Embassy takes up just about 2,153 square feet on one floor, with no outdoor space and no direct sunlight.
I trail my finger over the jumble of papers stacked on the table.
The first thing that strikes me is just how unstriking the office is. A desk juts out from the wall, strewn with snacks and cables and a venerable silver Apple laptop. A round table crowds the middle of the room, with a ThinkPad laptop, Olympus dictaphone and various papers on it. Shelves filled with books, folders and bits of stationery line the cream-colored walls. It’s just an office. Ordinary, mundane.
It’s exactly like the type of space many of us are confined in for eight hours a day — except we get to walk out every night.
Entering the replica, you know you’re stepping inside a copy, a portrait, an artist’s impression. The question is — do these details accurately represent Assange’s life?
The artists say they re-created the office from memory. I tried to ask Assange himself how accurate it is, but whoever manages the WikiLeaks Twitter account replied to my direct messages only to ask for more information about the exhibition and then stopped answering.
So I asked exhibition curator David Garcia. According to Garcia, in a “” world of , artistic hoaxes and creative interpretations of reality turn the tables on those who lie to achieve power. “The artist can be a researcher,” he says, “using the tools and traditions of art not only to produce beautiful art but also to investigate, to pull back the curtain and expose how power operates.”
Sitting at a desk that looks like Assange’s, I decide to trust the artists’ details to project myself into Assange’s room, and by extension, into his head.
A jumble of virtually prehistoric Nokia and Samsung phones are piled on the mantlepiece, presumably burners. A cinema ticket is a reminder of the places Assange can’t go. Two photos are stuck in the glass door of a wooden cabinet: a picture of Assange and another of Pirate Bay co-founder Gottfrid Svartholm, who has been in actual prison in Sweden and Denmark on hacking and fraud charges. In the photos, each holds handwritten signs calling for the other’s freedom.
A Vivienne Westwood bag perches atop the bookshelf. Perhaps it was left by the outspoken fashion designer herself — she’s just one of the famous people who’ve visited the embassy. Yoko Ono, John Cusack, Pamela Anderson, Nigel Farage and Lady Gaga have all hung out with Assange there. He’s certainly not without human interaction.
Looking up, I spy an Anonymous mask eyeing the room from within a cabinet. And half-hidden on the floor behind the desk, resting incongruously, a gas mask and oxygen tank. Assange isn’t going scuba diving any time soon: according to the artists, the embassy supplied him a mask in case of a gas or bomb attack.
I take a closer look and see a laptop labeled “Twitter.” Printed emails from the US State Department. A Freedom of Information Act request. Folders labeled “Intelligence Iraq,” “Scientology,” “Snowden,” “Sweden.”
From these details, it’s tempting to imagine how Assange sees himself. Prominently displayed on the mantlepiece are a DVD of the 1969 satire “Putney Swope” and a copy of Neal Stevenson’s “Zodiac,” both stories of lone heroes standing up to corrupt corporations. Among the authors on the bookshelves are assorted iconoclasts and literary bad boys: James Joyce, Will Self, Irvine Welsh, Slavoj Žižek, Quentin Tarantino.
There are several Douglas Adams books as well — there’s certainly something darkly absurd about Assange’s situation.
Other items have delicious double meaning: a Kubrick DVD boxset includes “The Shining,” in which Jack Nicholson plays a man slowly going mad in an isolated hotel. And among the only women on the bookshelf is Virginia Woolf with “A Room of One’s Own.”
I’ve been in this ersatz office for a couple of hours, poking about, taking pictures and notes, and I’m growing bored and fidgety. I try to picture a day in this room turning into hundreds upon hundreds of days.
A double-edged sword
Confinement took its toll on Assange almost from the start. A medical and psychological evaluation released by Wikileaks claims he suffers from dental problems and chronic pain in his right shoulder, and frequently loses track of time as his sleep is disrupted.
In September 2012, just three months after entering the embassy, Assange scuffled with an embassy security guard. A few months later, he apparently trashed his room. In response, embassy staff suggested controlling his access to alcohol. Last year, another contretemps saw embassy staff cut off Assange’s internet access.
Psychologist Lesley Perman-Kerr, an associate fellow and chartered member of the British Psychological Society, points out Assange is technically free both to leave and to live — even while confined, he can work and interact with people.
But when isolation stretches into years, Perman-Kerr suggests depression can set in, leading to what she calls “a mental shutdown where the person in effect gives up.”
Assange hasn’t given up interacting with the outside world, even if it is through the computer on his desk. But in this case, Perman-Kerr calls technology that enables communication “a double-edged sword,” functioning as both lifeline and tormenter that starkly underscores a world in which Assange isn’t fully participating.
“It’s like seeing someone prepare a mouthwatering meal but you are unable to smell or taste it,” she says.
Parman-Kerr identifies the isolation and disconnection people often feel the longer they’re cut off from the world. As they experience growing physical and mental stress, their actions could “become more bizarre and desperate,” she says.
Sitting in the fake office, I hear music drifting through the window from the FACT lobby outside. “Thorn In My Side” by the Eurythmics is playing. And then, with perfect comic timing, the twang of “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I decide to take that as a sign.
I walk out the door and feel the rain on my face.
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