How Much of this is Fiction. A rhetorical question, you could say. There is a lot of doubt over the way things happen in society, so how much can we believe? The key message from the last exhibition at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool is about deception. To what extent are we being fooled or protected from the strange incidents that come to pass in political media?
The question I have to get off my chest before I go any further is: are artists the ultimate tricksters? In this collection of work, we see examples of technological means adopted by fraudsters, e.g. fake domain names and websites and also elaborate hoaxes conducted via our respected institutions. So is an artist a liar by trade? To know for sure we have to go to the source of lies and deception, Paul Ekman author of Telling Lies: “It is not just the liar that must be considered in defining a lie but the liar’s target as well. In a lie the target has not asked to be misled, nor has the liar given any prior notification of an intention to do so. It would be bizarre to call actors liars. Their audience agrees to be misled, for a time…. Actors do not impersonate, as does the conman, without giving notice that it is a pose put on for a time.”
In the same vain, artists are not being duplicitous in general: only in cases where they have given no prior notification of their intention to mislead. Throughout this exhibition, there are examples that certainly create doubt. In some situations, we feel complicit; either by suspending our disbelief or by entering into the game, we are a huge part of this web of lies, deliberately or obliviously.
Fact brings together an ensemble of artworks, stunningly curated by Annet Dekker and David Garcia, dedicated to the “politically inspired media art that uses deception in all its forms.” We can break them down into three areas, which I have labelled pure hoax, theatre and satire.
1 – Pure hoax – We, the audience, think it is true and we are fooled
The News Room divulges various ways that art and media have contributed to tricking the public, not least with The Yes Man’s Dow Does the Right Thing (2004). As many people remember, an actor known to us only as “Jude Finnisterra” purports to be a spokesperson for Dow Chemical Company, and is interviewed on the BBC to formally apologise and make reparations for the Bhopal Catastrophe 20 years after it took place. The Yes Man gives an insight into a preferred reality in which companies accept responsibility for their negative footprints and pay accordingly. Of course, the whole general public besides the British broadcaster was entirely taken in.
The Arabian Street Artists have also hoodwinked us in Homeland is not a Series (2015). They were commissioned to provide artwork for the well-known TV series Homeland. The artists created graffiti in Arabic for the set, a language the crew and a large part of the English-speaking audience would not have understood. The graffiti contained critical messages accusing the series of being racist. The stills are displayed at FACT along with a short film explaining the prank.
2 – Theatre – We the audience know this to be an untrue representation
“Theatre” is a way to describe work from the perspective that we know it to be a fallacy and fully accept we are being misled. And yet at the same time, in deploying fictitious means, the artists have created another reality. One of the strongest pieces in the show is Assange’s Room, part of Delivery for Mr Assange (2013) by !Mediengruppe Bitnik.
The prefabricated room looks like a children’s Wendy house from the exterior, yet it is a full reproduction of Julian Assange’s office where he resides in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy. From the gentle bustle of the FACT foyer, you step into the embassy room and you sense the atmosphere has changed. Surrounded by Assange’s personal effects, clothes, shoes, fitness apparatus and computer cables accompanying the workplace furniture and lever arch files, you are no longer in Liverpool’s famous arts centre.
Added to this, Adam Harvey’s Skylift is a spoofing device that enables you to connect to the WiFi right outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, so you can take part in the deception game and you are encouraged to tweet from the London Knightsbridge location.
Coco Fusco’s project Operation Atropos, created in 2006, is presented as a film documenting a group of female students undergoing the brutal interrogation methods administered by former US army interrogators. Some of the participants are experiencing what military detainees are subject to while others are learning to implement the very same tactics. Although we, the audience, know this is only for training purposes, it is profoundly disturbing to gain this sort of insight into how information is extracted from prisoners using deception besides torture to play mind games.
Wachter & Jud took a different approach to the other artists in the exhibition in Zone*Interdite. The 2006 work offers the audience a 3D representation of Guantanamo Bay, and just as if you were in a video game, you get to move through the corridors between the cells using a joystick. This could have been enhanced by the adoption of a VR headset, and it wasn’t necessarily user friendly, yet it was interesting to be taken into this forbidden area to elaborate on the mysterious site we only ever see short news snippets about.
3 – Satire – Taking a known truth and twisting it in a way the audience comprehends
Departing from “theatre” where we know something to be a replica of reality, “satire” merges truth with elements of fiction in a way that seems scarily feasible.
Ian Alan Paul has created The EU Bird Migration Authority (2012) and Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History (2012 – ongoing) to demonstrate truth via untruth. The EU Bird Migration Authority uses digital media resources from Frontex that deal with human migration to illustrate an alternate reality in which birds need to be controlled. There is a website and posters on display describing the issues relating to the need to inhibit free movement of these animals. The arguments put forward mirror the same opposition offered by those who want to limit immigration, for example the effect on the economy.
On the future for immigration, Paul states: “I think that the politics surrounding migration and refugees must be at the heart of how we imagine future societies being organized, and thus also of how we formulate the demands of political struggles in the present. As climate change worsens and armed conflicts intensify in various contexts, this question will undoubtedly become ever more pressing. It’s not simply a matter of asking how migrants and refugees should be treated or what rights they should have (although we should make demands about these too), but we should also ask who is considered to be fully human in the first place. Surely the thousands [of] migrants dying in the waters of the Mediterranean and the deserts of the U.S.-Mexico border aren’t considered to be part of humanity; if they were, wouldn’t there be great efforts undertaken by nation-sates to save their lives? Often, the struggle must take place at this very basic level: insisting on the ineradicable humanity of others”.
Ian Alan Paul takes marketing materials as starting point in the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History. With video and museum posters depicting a conceptual museum, this is a speculative design piece that allows a new perspective on art. We are used to seeing posters advertising actual events and existing tourist attractions. Seeing publicity and marketing produced for something as yet fictional delivers on the surprise element, and so you have to pay attention.
“This approach borrows heavily from (the recently-deceased) Mark Fisher’s concept of “Capitalist Realism” – continues Ian Alan Paul – in the sense that what we allow ourselves to believe in is often quite curtailed by the world we find ourselves living within. So while audiences may be turned off by or be sceptical of a political poster, leaflet, or manifesto, they’re absolutely willing to engage with an advertisement or business marketing materials that more readily conform to their worldview. That in a way can be a radically subversive thing – to use the artistic and aesthetic forms that capitalism produces against the capitalist world we live in. This is a tradition that has been practiced within radical and artistic communities for a long time and I think can continue to be an effective tactic.”
UBERMORGEN also subvert in their highly popular installation Torture Classics (2010). The most humorous piece in the show, the work is an extended TV advertisement promoting a collection of music compilations. The presenters in the video talk directly to the audience and to each other nostalgically, much as a chat show host would, reminiscing about the musical hits that evoke positive memories. This is how we talk about a happy epoch of summer sunshine, blissful holidays and falling in love. Much of these tunes are well-known party staples, and bring to mind good times. Except we realise the presenters are describing the soundtrack in Middle Eastern prison camps, which was used to torture detainees.
Something about the concept seems completely fabricated, and yet we know it to be true. Clearly, the idea of an advertisement is made up, but the employment of popular music for torture is not. This simultaneous enjoyment of hearing the songs combined with the horror of knowing what they have been used for elicits a sense of cognitive dissonance that I found hard to reconcile.
Describing the process behind creating Torture Classics and trying to get a handle on the concept, UBERMORGEN aka Maria and Hans Bernhard recollect: “The potential monstrosity, pain, horror and destruction does not exist for us regular users. We tortured people using our superenhanced interrogation software as transhuman instructor. Sessions took place in Belgrade, Belfast, Jerusalem, Zurich, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Seoul. And we performed 24-hour music-torture sessions (with James Powderly as subject) in a remote area in Korea. We have experienced the intimacy between the perpetrator and the victim. But we can still not even remotely understand the horror, terror, psychological destruction and pain of physical, musical and psychological torture. It’s simply not our expertise, not in our realm of imagination. To be fully submitted to the power of an institution and of individuals (both erratic) must be terrorizing, destabilizing and frightening to a level where the brain will become defective and develop mental illnesses. It seems to be something one has to experience to understand. So we are back to using music in the traditional way. Sure there is music on the list that puts us off, but it is just because it is shitty music, not because it has been used for torture”.
This installation raises the very important question about ownership. Thinking of all the popular tracks appearing in this promotional video, how must artists feel about their intellectual property being used as a torture device? “Some bands and musicians have tried to prevent the use of their music – say Maria and Hans Bernhard – and other bands have actively promoted the use of their music for what they consider to be patriotic actions. This is both short-sighted and stupid and also irrelevant since musicians have no say over private usage of their music in non-public settings. Just to be clear, music torture was never a professional form of torture. It was always chaotic, dilettantish and useless for the proclaimed goals, even when it was organized. All torture is! Sure, it depends a bit on your objective. If you want information, torture is truly useless. If you want to punish and destroy people, it is very useful. If you want to create new enemies or intensify hostility, it is highly efficient”.
But I wonder how would UBERMORGEN feel if their work was to be used for the same purpose? “There is no need to speculate about this – answer the artists – since way back in the 1990s, we were aware that our research [would] be used and that our media hacks would help optimize existing power structures and corporate systems. Especially my (Hans) basic research with Etoy (on transhumanism, drugs, cults, self-optimization, the manososphere and the singularity) and then our UBERMORGEN actions and strategies (Vote-Auction, Nazi-Line, Google Will Eat Itself, Asylum Defence Agency, Killliste) were available to be used by corporate and governmental agencies. Just to be clear, we think this discourse is a waste of time. After the release into the wild we have no and wish to have no power over the released material… So we are good.
Throughout the How Much of this is Fiction exhibition, rightly or wrongly, we have been treated to a medley of mendacity, theatre, satire and hoax. It illustrates that we must always be prepared to be lied to, and to use fact and fiction to speculate and create. As a thinking society, it is wise to know that of all the falsehood that exists, the worst kind would be that which we do to ourselves, so you could think of this show as a type of “deception-training” to enhance your questioning capabilities.
Next time we read a report that seems farfetched, you no longer have to take it at face value. Thank you FACT for curing us of our blissful ignorance.