Review | False Flag: The Space Between Paranoia and Reason
Review | False Flag: The Space Between Paranoia and Reason
Curated by Jeff Ostergren
Franklin Street Works, 41 Franklin Street, Stamford, CT
Through January 6, 2019
Curator and artist Jeff Ostergren conceived of the idea for the show, False Flag: The Space Between Paranoia and Reason, in September 2016. The United States presidential election was approaching and many (this writer included) believed we’d soon be celebrating the first female president in this nation’s history.
Instead, we witnessed “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory—now debunked—that went viral the next month. Pizzagate motivated Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old North Carolinian, to investigate one of the Washington D.C. area restaurants where child sex slaves were purportedly being kept. (They weren’t.) Welch brought along and fired a rifle inside the pizza place. No one was hurt and Welch was arrested. Still, some theorized that the incident had been staged as an elaborate rouse to obfuscate the veracity of the very theory Welch’s actions unhinged. With Pizzagate—its irrational turn of events and its inability to be quashed—the ubiquity of and investment in paranoiac beliefs appeared to surge brazenly into the present.
As Pizzagate unfolded, Donald J. Trump, real estate tycoon and former reality TV star, became the forty-fifth American president. The news became unreal in every sense. “Fake news” tweets the president and in many ways, the news did (and still does) seem unfathomable. Amplified by fear, many Americans have defaulted to paranoia as modus operandi.
Ostergren, whose interest in the matter predates these events, worked on this show over the past two years—bizarre and scary times within our American political history. In the catalog essay for False Flag, he explains how his perception of the exhibition shifted. Certain works didn’t seem funny anymore. “Artists who worked in a dry conceptual vein could be seen as mystics,” he writes.
Unlike Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—which has been heralded as the first museum show dedicated to the topic and serendipitously coincides with False Flag—Ostergren’s exhibition does not prescribe neat theories to the disorderly webs of conspiracy. (Everything is Connected delineates two categories of art spawn from conspiracy—one based on public records, the other on fantasy.) Rather, Ostergren’s updated roster of artists echo the incoherence of the subject matter; the show is both dense and demanding.
Certain works attempt to decode the language or symbols associated with conspiratorial networks. Three smaller drawings by the self-taught artist Melvin Way reference scientific theorems and schematic diagrams. Way’s imagined chemical compounds are indecipherable, but the scale and delicacy of the work draw viewers closer.
Michael Green’s r/Pizzagate I-V (2016) is a series of digital images created on Maya animation software while taking Brain Force, a product hawked by American radio host, Alex Jones, on the Infowars website. (Per the website, Brain Force is a combination of roots, herbs, and amino acids designed to “supercharge your state of mind.”) Green incorporated precise details related to the Internet conspiracy and his choice to render the imagery digitally also references the origin of the work’s coded content.
Similarly, The War on Proof (2017), an inkjet print by Juliana Huxtable—a visual artist, performance artist, writer, and D.J.—reads like a phony infographic or poster explaining the relativity of information. Both Green and Huxtable’s works indicate how two people can look at the same facts, but from different vantage points, draw conflicting conclusions.
Another work by Huxtable in the upstairs gallery is less about translating the phenomenon, taking a more taunting posture that other artists utilize as well. In Untitled (2017), Huxtable, a queer, black, femme artist, has manipulated her face to recall Jack Nicholson’s Joker character from the 1989 Batman movie. Several of these small menacing faces are placed atop more buttons containing Huxtable’s hair. In doing so, Huxtable stresses her embodiment as the enemy of ultra-right conservative values.
Chicago-based artist Darja Bajagić’s piece, Vixit ft. Black Widow Zarema Muzhikhoyeva and Karen Howell (2018), also confronts stereotypes of femininity. Using acrylic paint and a UV print on canvas, Bajagić brings together two women with violent reputations. In 2003, rather than completing a suicide bombing, Zarema Muzhikhoyeva turned herself into the Moscow police. Like the closing scene of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The Misfit,” Karen Howell, along with five of her friends, carjacked and murdered a family on a road trip in 1997. In the center of the composition, splatters of paint look like blood.
Watching Theodore Darst’s video, The Tourist: This Machine Makes Fascists (2017), I felt like I was being brainwashed through the repetitive audio and imagery. The artist suspended the screen that plays his work using green camouflage cargo straps and Darst’s aesthetic—with a throng of cascading red-eyed avatars and actual footage from survivalist “preppers”—suggests a video game gone wrong.
Even more alarming than the jeering nature of these works by Huxtable, Bajagić and Darst are the pieces that probe surveillance across its insidious forms. A drone circles the home of Barbara Streisand in Daniel Keller’s video, Basilisk (2017) in the opening scenes. As the camera hovers over the large Malibu house, Keller explains “Roko’s basilisk,” offering a crash course on Internet memes via a small, inset rectangle within his lengthy video essay. More than any other work in the show, Keller’s video has haunted me. For days, I have been ruminating on the ideas he explores in the video, and I could share those thoughts, but doing so would forever infect reader’s brains.
Hidden in a corner near Keller’s video and throughout the two floors of the gallery, Tim Trantenroth’s oil paintings on paper show security cameras and drones. These devices are stripped of their contexts, depicted in cool tones with formal precision. Within the exhibition, Trantenroth’s slick paintings function as a much-needed break from the rest of the show, which is mostly text-dependent and information-rich.
Other nearby works also focus on surveillance. Violet Dennison used a radio wave detector to pinpoint radiation within the gallery. These spots have been demarcated on the wall using copper casts of genetically modified corn, each one embedded with an RFID chip. In Users Are Talking… (2017), Mark Flood has printed a screen capture of the website ArtRank. His enlarged version is redacted and encourages collectors to divest themselves of any works by Flood.
Downstairs, James Benning’s two-channel video displays the interiors of two small domiciles. Reading the “Self-Guided Tour” pamphlet—a generous and necessary gesture—I learned that these structures are recreations of the cabins of two seemingly opposing characters: Henry David Thoreau, the American Transcendentalist who escaped to the woods “to live deliberately,” (as is oft-quoted on inspirational mugs and the like), and Ted Kaczynski, aka the “Unabomber,” who also left society and shared Thoreau’s love for the natural world. With the fabricated cabins positioned next to each, these two people—separated by a century—appear more similar than different. Thoreau becomes radicalized and I empathize more with Kaczynski.
The final two works in the show orient viewers toward the post-apocalyptic future. Son Kit’s Anthropiscine War Machine 2: North American Front (2018) is a contraption that captures water and filters it into a jar with pepper flakes and salt in order to make kimchi. It looks like a janky prop, the designs for which likely exist or are sold in some dark corner of the web.
All Together Now (2008), the video by Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, is set in the near future with a soundtrack of pop songs from the 1960s and 70s. Bands of people don hoods over their faces and we watch as they look for food and interact with each other in peculiar ways. This wacky tribe feels nonsensical but familiar, maybe lovable.
Overall, many of the works pull from the web or refer back to it. Cass Sunstein, the American legal scholar and author of a series of books exploring conspiracy, posits that social media sites are the contemporary version of the agora in his 2017 book, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media . Facebook and other algorithm-based sites herd us into like-minded groups, the most fanatical of which have learned how to exploit social media and the web. On the one hand, I kept circling back to this hunch that some of these theories seem to be the product of people—possibly lonely, probably white men—spending too much time diving into the Internet’s wormholes. Yet, impossible as it seemed two years ago, certain conspiracies have been realized. Meme warfare has had all too real consequences for our political system.
“So, how to proceed?” asks Ostergren in the catalog essay. Several artists in False Flag show us how the Internet can unite and foment the most extreme ideologies. As I watched Keller’s video, Basilisk, I felt naive about the depths of various online communities. Keller explains that exposure to a particular conspiracy theory makes you more likely to believe it. And believing in one conspiracy increases the odds that you will adopt another. The Internet has proven to be a formidable breeding ground for conspiracies as well as the exchange of information in all forms: factual, imagined, contrived, misunderstood, hateful. Undergirding False Flag is the terrifying realization that we’ve been unable to control or predict how people will utilize this power.
False Flag: The Space Between Paranoia and Reason continues through January 6, 2019, at Franklin Street Works in Stamford.