Do You Feel Free Now?

James Bridle and Chelsea Manning at the Royal Institution in London. Photo: ICA.

ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, Chelsea Manning arrived at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Albemarle Street for her first public appearance in the UK.

She had flown into London the morning prior, accompanied by two immigration lawyers in case she was detained. Last year, Manning was denied entry to Canada, and this August an Australian tour had to be conducted via video from Auckland after a “delay” in the decision to grant her a visa. She was met at the airport by ICA director Stefan Kalmár, who arranged the trip and Monday’s conversation with the aid of a cast including Vivienne Westwood; the dealers Sadie Coles, Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, and Daniel Buchholz and Christopher Muller; and an “inspiring donor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

Our skeptical prophetess appeared in the parliamentary-style theater a little after 2 PM, lithe and electric in blue jeans and a black tank top and black Dr. Martens. She sat in a chair in the center of the rotunda, surrounded by three-hundred people of mostly fans and supporters, gathering from the applause. Adjacent was her interlocutor, the writer/artist James Bridle.

Manning was in prison from May 2010, not long after she uploaded several hundred thousand classified and sensitive military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks, until May 2017, after President Barack Obama commuted her thirty-five-year sentence that January, just days before he vacated his office to Donald Trump. Since her release, she has become a champion of decentralization and direct action.

“What’s the role for those of us who are not in the position to blow the whistle or act directly in that way?” Bridle asked.

“You listen,” Manning said. “Whenever somebody tells you that they have an experience, they have a deep, personal experience that only they have, listen to them, because you just don’t know.”

She’s often celebrated as an advocate for “transparency.” But that’s a hollow virtue; her anarchic imagination reaches out toward the abyss of utopia, by which I mean a different way of thinking about systems. For her, it seems if not discernible, then fathomable.

But I’d rather let her speak:

“You explained a lot about the necessity of making some of this stuff visible and accessible to people so that they can understand . . . ,” Bridle began.

Manning cut him off: “It is accessible! It’s all around us. It is visible. It’s not that we don’t see it, that we don’t know about it. That might have been an issue before, but now it’s not. This isn’t a knowledge problem; it’s an action problem.”

She ran for senate in Maryland earlier this year, hoping to “move the needle” by asking questions most grown-ups have grown to stop asking. “There’s an assumption that there needs to be a president,” she said. “It’s been assumed that you need a single office that has this huge amount of power. But is that really true?”

“Are any of these advanced technologies ones that can be deployed in more equitable ways? Is it a matter of whose deploying them?” Bridle asked. He sat in the same spot where Michael Faraday first demonstrated electromagnetism, in 1831.

Manning: “I want to be very clear: Technology—especially machine learning—there’s no inherent value in it, from a moral perspective. Technology is neither good nor bad—nor is it neutral. Whatever values we put into it makes it that. So, we really need to have a more democratized control—not just influence, but control—over these systems.”

A member of the legal team for Julian Assange, who still lurks in asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy less than a mile away, attempted to bait her into a discussion of the Wikileaks founders’ case. He also asked how we could support whistleblowers. Manning swiftly deflected. “It’s not about getting more [information] so much as it is doing something about it afterward. One of the things I want to see people doing is not necessarily supporting people who are providing the information in the first place, like, with resources, but to actually do something with the information that is out there, already.”

When a questioner raised the problem of how to square decentralization with the need for strong regulation, accountability, Manning was firm:

“Centralization is the inherent problem here. Regulation is centralization. The problem with that kind of centralization is that you have two different kinds of institutions with different kinds of interests that are not us. It’s just switching hats. One oppressive institution policing another oppressive institution. I don’t think that that’s necessarily the one and only approach.”

A young woman from The Guardian raised her hand: “How do you respond to Trump’s comment that you should never have been released that he made at the beginning of last year?”

“Well, here I am.”

Chelsea Manning and Stefan Kalmár. Photo: ICA.

That evening, Manning arrived at the ICA London for a second talk for a smaller, invite-only audience. A black silk Vivienne Westwood jumpsuit gathered like a storm above her familiar Dr. Martens. There were all the usual opportunities for Wolfean satire: All of us lined up to celebrate an inspiring radical activist at a conversation hitched to the second annual Friends of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Dinner, which also functioned in the social calendar as the kickoff to a circus in which those who can afford to (and many who can’t) converge for the ritualized exchange of art for vast sums of money, much of which seemed destined for an increasingly removed top tier. The temptation slipped. I really just wanted to see her speak again.

Manning was introduced by the ICA’s new chair, the formidable thirty-five-year-old philanthropist Hadeel Ibrahim, daughter of the Sudanese British billionaire Mohammed Ibrahim. “It’s more vital than ever to have safe spaces where difficult conversations can be held,” she said, before announcing a renewal project marking the fiftieth anniversary of the ICA’s move to its current location at Nash House on the Mall. “At no other point in the history of the ICA could the chair of the institution look like me. The world is changing.”

Manning understands the rules of provocation. A clickbaiting headline at The Guardian had already blasted out a statement from her earlier talk, “Life in the US is like being in prison,” which predictably clipped Twitter like a paper cut. Excised and projected into the ether, the quote seemed disingenuous. But she wasn’t saying that there’s no difference between being inside and outside; she’s highlighting the contiguity of systems and tools.

“Most of my adult life has been in prison,” the thirty-year-old Manning said from the ICA theater’s stage. “My reference point for almost everything in my daily life is prison, because that’s what I know so well. I became institutionalized. When you put somebody in prison for a while you really develop a mentality and a mindset to get you through that environment and the transition is extremely difficult.”

She continued: “We really need to think about why we have prisons in the first place.”

“Do you feel free now?” asked her interlocutor, the British journalist Carole Cadwalladr.

“I look around and I see surveillance cameras everywhere. I look around and I see cops everywhere, like heavily armed, in the US in particular. The United States has a border wall. It’s almost like a meta-prison. The freedom of movement is there, but it’s also all of these elements that make up a prison, that make up a police state, exist now. They existed before, but they've intensified, they’ve become more real. I had this very idealized vision of the world that when I came out was really challenged. So, it’s hard for me to say I’m actually free now. I’m more free than before, but there’s a lot more baggage, a lot more difficulty trying to navigate a new life with this understanding of the world.”

“You’ve become very much an advocate of direct action, and that’s the belief that the ballot box and polite protest isn’t enough,” Cadwalladr said.

“Civility, if you will.”

Cadwalladr: “And can you just explain a bit more about it, do you think it does take individuals like yourself doing something which is kind of bold and brave and challenging to the system?”

Does Manning ever get hero exhaustion?

Manning: “The word I would use is risk. It’s about knowing the risk level and stepping outside the bounds and asserting yourself. The fundamental principle is that you’re going outside the norms, the legal apparatus, the court system, the notion of voting, academic debate—you start to step outside of that and you start to assert yourself, or your community bands together and comes up with something new and unique that isn’t dependent upon the existing incumbent system.”

Andreas Kronthaler, Chelsea Manning, Vivienne Westwood, Stefan Kalmár. Photo: ICA.

She cited, not for the first time, the August 20 toppling of the Confederate statue Silent Sam by students and other activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I want to be there in support of folks when they do this stuff. Because it’s scary and it’s risky, and it can send your life into upheaval, but you’re doing it because you believe in something and because the system that you’re trying to change isn’t going to change itself. You can’t ask it anymore. So, you do it yourself and you find that you actually had this political agency and power—you had it all along.”

“Fantastic,” Vivienne Westwood shouted from the front row. “Yes, yes.”

Cadwalladr: “Do you think that’s what’s required now, that there’s something really radical is required now. You talk about the systemic oppression in the United States which is bigger than Trump, as you said, is that right?”

Manning: “Trump has become a very convenient distraction. We talk a lot about a single individual and all the drama that happens around him. But the American immigration system was deporting people before Donald Trump came along. We were rounding up people beforehand. President Obama still has the record number of deportations. Or you look at the prison system. We had already had the largest prison system in the world. Or you look at income inequality. Healthcare. These problems existed before.”

“What are you advocating now? Are you advocating people should take to the streets, or what do you, where do you . . . ,” Cadwalladr asked.

Manning: “If they feel that that’s what they need to do. This isn't me telling anyone what to do. I go to a lot of smaller communities across the United States. Every single time I keep finding that these small groups of people—they really know what the issues are that are affecting them. And, more importantly, they know what’s important to address these things.”

Cadwalladr asked what Manning thought of the impact of her leaks.

“I spent seven years of my life fighting to survive, and that was the main focus for me. And I get that y’all have had the opportunity to unpack it all. But I never did. I went from zero to sixty—like, okay now I’m in solitary confinement and it’s just survival. I’ve been in this mode for quite some time. Seeking hormones, seeking access to gender-confirming healthcare while in prison. And now I’m out and I just see, ‘Oh wow, the things that were bothering me ten years ago? Well, they’ve really intensified.’”

Then there was dinner, upstairs, catered by Arnold & Henderson. Across from Manning sat her friend Janus Cassandra, the artist Martine Syms, and Brian Eno. The hum of the institution’s society, its business, went to work. Westwood stood up for a toast to Manning. She stumbled and used the honoree’s dead name. “Chelsea!” people shouted. Westwood looked confused. Manning looked upset. War heroes care about pronouns too. Westwood recuperated, slowly. “In my mind, Chelsea Manning is the biggest hero that ever lived,” she said, before launching into an eschatological sermon on the horrors of climate change. And, the real tragedy: “At the rate we’re going,” she said, “there won’t even be an ICA in fifty years!”

I left the dinner at midnight. In the car home, I remembered something and looked it up on my phone. “The heroine we need is against the hero,” a friend once wrote. “The antagonist. She remains outside.”