By Lisa Rein
Chelsea Manning had “A conversation with Heather Dewey-Hagborg” – On Thursday, March 15, 2018, at 5:10pm at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
This time last year, my friends Chelsea Manning and Heather Hewey-Hagborg were still depending on me in order to communicate effectively; so they could collaborate on their art and research projects together.
Heather and Chelsea’s collaborations started way back in 2015, when some folks at Paper magazine orchestrated their first collaboration. Using only the good old U.S. mail, Chelsea sent Heather swabs of her DNA and answered a number of powerful questions to start a discussion about DNA and privacy that continues to this day. Boy was it cool being in the middle of that conversation. 🙂
Heather had developed a method for creating portraits of strangers based on DNA, and was speaking around the world, explaining both the wonders of forensic phenotyping, and how the technology is inherently problematic.
Meanwhile, Chelsea, in prison, in 2013 was not being allowed to be photographed or recorded. (After a charismatic Daniel Ellsberg won over the hearts of millions in the 1970s, the Feds sure weren’t going to make that mistake again.)
The way Chelsea’s voice was being silenced angered and, ultimately, intrigued Heather. Perhaps she could turn it around into something anti-oppressive, and utilize this technology to give Chelsea the public face she had been denied, by creating portraits of her, from her DNA.
By the time I came along, they had already completed Stranger Visions and Radical Love – so I had a lot of catching up to do, at first, just to understand Chelsea’s artistic preferences. Chelsea would often have ideas that she had written up, and I would take notes and read them back to Chelsea exactly, so I could convey the information accurately to Heather. Then Heather would write back with her ideas, and I would have to make sure I understood those well enough to explain them to Chelsea the next time we spoke.
On November 23, 2016, Heather sent me an excited email with a great idea for “taking some of the writing I have been doing and working with an illustrator to make a comic book or animation bringing things to life.” This would become the Suppressed Images comic book, which tells the story about their friendship and artistic collaborations, and specifically how Chelsea learned it’s important to “Never Shut Up” when someone tries to chill your speech.
Although both Chelsea and I loved the idea, we didn’t think there was enough time to complete the project, and didn’t want to pressure them. But Heather and illustrator Shoili Kanungo worked very very hard to meet their own intense deadlines, in order to finish it in time to be published during President Obama’s last week in office. (When, historically, commutations happen.) As it turned out, it was published in the morning on the same day her commutation was announced. (As the White House announced Chelsea’s commutation in the early afternoon, east coast time.)
This comic book had become our attempt to visualize a reality where Chelsea was commuted – in a world where everyone else had told us that it was impossible. (Now, amazingly, in that same world, everyone acts like it was inevitable 🙂
I was asking different people all over the world to visualize Chelsea out in the regular world with them. Playwrights visualized Chelsea sitting in the audience at their plays. Band members pictured her rocking out at their shows. DJs pictured her dancing to their beats. And now, this comic book literally provided illustrated pictures of the possibilities.
Just one month after the comic book was released — and of course — one month after we had received the good news about Chelsea’s upcoming release — in February, 2017, I got to do it again.
That project was challenging because I was often describing pretty complex ideas with diagrams, so that Chelsea could recreate them on a piece of paper, think about them, and make decisions.
Lisa Rein: My oh my Heather. Looking at these pictures. It’s just so incredible.
I can remember our deciding – against everyone elses opinions – to include your ridiculous hopeful ending: For Chelsea to be out and free and looking at her own portraits.
And yet it came true on the very day the comic book was released. Does any of this last year seem real to you? I’m still in dream land.
Heather Hewey-Hagborg: Yes. I know what you mean. It’s hard to believe that, almost exactly a year ago, I was standing on stage at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor as part of the same Penny Stamps lecture series Chelsea Manning and I are speaking at together today.
This time last year, it really did still fee like a dream. Chelsea was still in prison but we had begun working on the expanded installation – our collaboration on Probably Chelsea – that would mark and celebrate her release. I shared some initial rough ideas with the audience about even at the end of the talk, although they grew and changed in important ways over the next months.
I also described our graphic short story that Chelsea and I wrote together with illustrator Shoili Kanungo which advocated and envisioned her commutation – to the audience – and told them the amazing and miraculous story of publishing the comic on the very morning that Obama actually granted her clemency.
Now I am so incredibly honored, humbled, inspired, and filled with gratitude to be able to stand on the stage together with Chelsea in person to discuss art, technology, and politics — like it’s just totally normal to be here together.
LR: I remember the morning we heard the news, on January 17, 2017.
HDH: For me, on the east coast, it was in the early afternoon 🙂 The comic went live early morning my time and I heard about the commutation that afternoon.The announcement of Chelsea’s commutation was one of the most jubilant and overwhelmingly emotional moments of my life, and certainly my artistic career. It was incredibly meaningful to me.
LR: It also felt important the whole time you guys were working on that comic book too. It was an incredible experience for me, as a historian and archivist, to not just meet or read about, but actually be the conduit that worked between you guys on those projects (Suppressed Images and Probably Chelsea).
HDH: Looking back, it was, and is, such a dark time. After Trump in the U.S. and brexit in Europe, Chelsea’s commutation was like a beacon of hope; a way of showing us how important it is to really incant the future you want to see, and how the power of words can be used to make the changes you want.
Of course her release was the result of a lot of different things coming together — and the comic we wrote, anticipating, asking for her release, felt like this little sprinkle of magic potion that catalyzed this reaction. To revisit that today is such a powerful reminder that positive change is really possible.