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The Public Art Project Making the Case for Whistleblowers to Be Regarded as Heroes

By casting Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning in bronze, artist Davide Dormino argues the three activists should be regarded as monumental heroes.

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 1crop

All around Europe, statues commemorating the continent’s dead heroes ring city squares. Statesmen, soldiers, thinkers — they are all represented. Notably absent from this gallery of historical figures is a distinctly 21st-century icon: the digital whistleblower. Now, a new public art project is bringing a bit of bronze recognition for these individuals.

This week, Davide Dormino, an Italian artist, brought his three statues of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning to Geneva’s Place des Nations. Dormino’s work shows each figure, cast in bronze, standing atop a chair. A fourth, empty chair is meant for the viewer, who is invited to stand next to the three on their elevated platform. The statues have been traveling around Europe, having already shown in Berlin and Dresden. Their next stop is Paris on Sept. 23.

Dormino says he took his inspiration for the piece from the courage of the three activists. “Squares are full of monuments to dead heroes, but they are still alive and they are paying a very hard price for what they did,” Dormino told Foreign Policy in an interview. Placing the three figures on chairs, he said, has a double meaning. They are a comfortable everyday objects, but today, Dormino said, “we are much too comfortable.” As a result, he said, “we don’t grow up, so the idea is to exit our comfort zone. That is the only way to see other things — in this case, the truth.”

Dormino likened his sculpture to the scene in the film Dead Poets Society, in which actor Robin Williams’s character tells his students to stand atop their desks to look at things in a new way. “Art has a great power to help people, to open a new window, to show them something new,” Dormino said.

The decision to cast Assange, Manning, and Snowden in bronze raises interesting implications over how history will regard the three. That kind of monumental public art is, as Dormino points out, usually only accorded to public figures after their death and their legacy has been more evaluated with the passage of time.

As it stands, these three activists remain deeply controversial figures. Assange is currently hiding out in Ecuador’s London embassy in order to avoid being questioned by Swedish authorities on claims of sexual misconduct. Manning is currently serving a 35-year sentence for leaking to Assange a huge trove of military and diplomatic cables. Snowden is in exile in Russia. 

Taken together, these three have arguably done more than anyone in the last decade to peel back the layer of secrecy that surrounds the U.S. national security apparatus. But their historical legacy remains very much contested. American officials and politicians have variously denounced the three as traitors, spies, and provocateurs for U.S. enemies. Dormino’s sculptures are one of the more beautiful interventions on the other side of that debate, that they should be regarded as heroes.

Watch below the statue’s unveiling in Berlin:

Photo credit: Screenshot taken from YouTube

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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