In 2016, Julian Assange Gave Ai Weiwei a Treadmill. Now the Artist Is Using it in a Campaign to Save the WikiLeaks Founder

Ai Weiwei says that any threat to Julian Assange is an attack on press freedom globally.

Screen shot of #RunForOurRights by Ai Weiwei. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei.
Screen shot of #RunForOurRights by Ai Weiwei. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei wants the world to pay close attention to a recent British court ruling regarding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—so he’s taken to his treadmill.

Ai’s social media campaign, #RunForOurRights, is motivated by a High Court ruling last week in which two of Britain’s senior-most judges overturned an earlier decision and ruled in favor of allowing the 50-year-old Assange to be extradited to the United States to face espionage charges. The ruling has sparked an outcry from advocates for press freedom.

The espionage charges stem from the 2010 publication by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of leaked files related to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ai’s campaign began on Monday, when he uploaded onto Instagram a video of himself running on a treadmill that Assange gave the artist in 2016. The video is accompanied by a soundtrack of gunshots.

Ai is encouraging his followers to post their own videos along with the hashtags #RunForOurRights and #Treadmill. (For those without treadmills, Ai suggested they record themselves running on a slippery bathroom floor.)

 

“Press freedom is the most important pillar of a free society,” Ai told Artnet News, calling WikiLeaks a media platform. “Without press freedom, there is no freedom of expression, without which freedom and democracy do not exist. This is the value that we must defend today.”

“As an artist, I want to use my own way to raise people’s awareness,” Ai added. He chose the treadmill because it represented an inability to move forward, even when running.

Ai met Assange three times, the artist said. The first meeting took place in September 2015 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange had holed up after being accused by several women in Sweden of sexual assault. (An investigation by Swedish authorities was eventually dropped.)

“From that meeting, I learned that he had hope for art, and he hoped that art professionals could do something about his situation,” Ai said.

A year later, Ai got an email from Assange saying he wanted to gift Ai the treadmill he used at the Ecuadorian embassy. It was later delivered to the artist’s studio in Berlin, where Ai lived in self-imposed exile from 2015 until he moved to Britain in 2019.

No treadmill? Try this (at your own risks). Courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

No treadmill? Try this (at your own risks). Courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

Ai, who was imprisoned for more than 80 days in China in 2011, said he is concerned about Assange’s health. In late October, the WikiLeaks founder, who faces a sentence of up to 175 years if convicted in the U.S., reportedly had a stroke in prison in southeast London.

“He would not be able to survive the conditions he would be held under,” Ai said.

“I hope this can make a difference to Assange’s situation,” the artist added.

The treadmill will be shown alongside other new works in a large-scale exhibition Ai is planning for the Albertina in Vienna in March.


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