Bah, I make circumstances!
Our progress poisons the sources of our experience. And the poison tastes so sweet that it spoils our appetite for plain fact.
— Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, 1962
The first American newspaper was published once a month in 1690, because there were only so many events that could be reported on.1 Since then, what is newsworthy has completely transformed, following the history of technology, and of journalism itself as technology. In 1888, with the advancement of print media, Emile Zola complained of how ‘the unchained flux of information had killed long-form commentary articles and literary critique in giving more space for breaking news, big or small.’2 An even greater tipping point marks the twentieth century with a change that sees events dominating the mediascape repeatedly, a shift that historian Daniel Boorstin calls ‘immoderate’ in his 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, where he demonstrates that events in the news are ‘not quite real’ but, instead, are ‘planned for the immediate purpose of being reported and reproduced’ in the media — planned and performed for the media.
No wonder, then, that it is difficult to understand this contemporary moment, when in 1962 the shifting relationship between fact, representation and news reportage had already been described as immoderate, revolutionary and important.3 The 1960s saw the boom of the television, and the development of political discourse with the rise of prime-time interviews, debates and presidential press-conferences. Importantly, this was before the moving images of the moon landing in 1969, which was said to have been filmed in a Hollywood studio.4 By holding this cultural symbol of the Cold War, and of American supremacy, together with the rapid increase and proliferation in personal video documentation of terrorist attacks since the start of the new millennium, it is easy to see how media representation hold a pivotal role in cultural wars, including the global one we are currently in, the ongoing War on Terror. Events are now inseparable from their representation, and their value as consumption-ready cultural symbols, reproductions and contemporary art. Can pseudo events help us understand the world as image, and the role of media images within it? Can media images and other representations of the War on Terror so often used in art, such as the surveillance state military machine, function as critique post Nine Eleven? Central to this are the questions of the position of the art institution in the building, questioning and presentation of those narratives? What is the role of the art institution in the construction of a public reality?
The repetition and reproduction of media images has become the main way in which we experience the news and, sometimes, world events in art. For Melbourne artist and theorist Philip Brophy, repetition in this context is part of a repertoire of ‘voiding effects’ that create an ‘unreality’, which cancels out the usual reality effect produced by the moving image 5 Following this, it would be easy to say that Nine Eleven, and other events that followed, such as the theatre of the killing of Osama bin Laden, are pseudo-events performed for the media to justify the War on Terror. This is a task rendered impossible by the ambiguity and pervasiveness of pseudo-events themselves. However, Boorstin’s analysis of pseudo-events and their dominance is key to reading images within the post-truth debate and contemporary art’s political trends in capitalist critique. It is useful to analyse how the cultural War on Terror plays out in contemporary art spaces to understand the new norm of our world as repeated image.
PSEUDO-EVENTS AND PROPAGANDA ART
And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring. Even those who thought they were attacking the system—the radicals, the artists, the musicians, and our whole counterculture—actually became part of the trickery, because they, too, had retreated into the make-believe world, which is why their opposition has no effect and nothing ever changes.
— Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation, film script, 2016
Pseudo-events are foundational to the rise of the public figure and the mediatised celebrity in America, which grows even further with social media influencers and digitally generated Instagramers.6 For Boorstin, pseudo-events ‘grow exponentially in geometric patterns’, they are ‘tantalizing’. However, this hypernormal reality, in which opposition has no effect, is what artist Jonas Staal believes can be changed. Through his work, Staal examines the relationship between art, democracy and propaganda—and argues for an emancipatory propaganda through art, given that anywhere you find power you find propaganda, and if art can make propaganda, it can make power. With his recent solo exhibition Steve Bannon: A Propaganda Retrospective (2018) at the Het Nieuwe Institut in Rotterdam and accompanying catalogue, Staal argues that propaganda is not only a means of communication — a film or a poster traditionally studied in the field of propaganda — but is itself a construction of reality, a control of means by which society is organised.8 Therefore, propaganda is an organising infrastructure that shapes the dominant narrative, a ‘manufacturing of consent’ that ‘works best when taken as mere fact of life’, as the new normal. This project focused on presenting Steve Bannon — the former White House advisor and campaign manager of United States president Donald Trump — as an artist, employing his production of musicals, Hollywood films, choreography of the Trump electoral campaign, and experience with internet gaming, role playing and closed system technologies, as well as his failures to remain in favor in those industries. For Staal, cultural spheres such as film, theatre and art are not to be avoided when analysing today’s theatre of politics, and he demonstrates how Bannon’s cultural influence fuelled the international alt-right movement and Trumpism.
Boorstin named pseudo-events not only for their staged character—think moon landing10 — but also because they are intended to deceive — think Nine Eleven. Pseudo-events are a particular kind of staged event, have a political function, and/or serve a financial or cultural agenda. They are based on an idea rather than a fact or real-life event. Boorstin particularly analysed the now well-established pseudo- events of news leaks and press conferences that generate the most influential reports, as opposed to factual events. He saw a widening gap between citizens and the information they should know, and called this disproportion an unreality, which corresponds to the increase of official ‘powers of concealment and contrivance’.11 For Staal, this is the propaganda machine working. Pseudo-events are interesting to us precisely because their meaning and relation to reality are ambiguous. At the core of pseudo-events is a shift in meaning that hinges on its ambiguity to be real or not, to be factual or fabricated. For Boorstin, this is not propaganda, which uses emotion to openly and unambiguously misrepresent real facts. The role of emotions and psychological phenomena, such as the backfire effect, in fake news and popular judgement of truths, as well as the realisation of media as a form of colonising power, is understood now more than ever before.
UNREALITY AND PROPAGANDA ART
Unreality construction is another strategy defined by Philip Brophy as a voiding of the effect of the real. Brophy demonstrates this in the aesthetics of ISIS videos that mirror Western conventions in cinema and news-media representation. It’s an institutional attack that is more important than the complicit construction or deconstruction of a reality, because it uses the means of this oppressor. For Brophy, ISIS videos12 are far more effective in their critique of the War on Terror than the contemporary art that borrows military imagery or replicates HD/war imaging technologies. This unreality is so solid that it is more stable, and therefore more powerful. For Brophy and Staal, some contemporary political art, such as the work of Harun Farocki, Richard Moss,13 and Trevor Paglen14 appropriate the aesthetics of the War on Terror, of the powerful, impenetrable, military surveillance machine and, in doing so, reproduce the dominant narrative. In the early 2000s, Farocki’s work gained incredible art world currency through a series of institutional solo shows worldwide and for its ability to think through ideas of visibility and apparatus, linking the history of photography to the military machine as an image making facility. However, it not only reproduced images but also the narrative of the invisible ‘other’ and the fracturing opposition of ideological blocks, of us and them, whereas ISIS videos perform a doubting of the image surface that must be read on its own terms. Brophy admits this complex voiding of reality is like postmodernism ‘on crack’, or a ‘revenge of the simulacra’, what artist and critic Peter Hill calls Aesthetic Vandalism, a part of Synthetic Modernism that came out of a frustration with post-modernism rather than aesthetics that call for a disruption of the image surface or conventions in conceptual and installation art.15
This is why Jonas Staal claims to practice an emancipatory propaganda art, to create new realities and new modernities. For Staal, propaganda is not only practiced by the elite, it can also be used to support alternative forms of power and points to the tradition of propaganda work in anti-colonial, liberational, and emancipatory political movements.16 From the basis that propaganda is not image but an organisational structure that creates reality, Staal has been working at proposing new infrastructures with and for political groups. In New World Summit—Rojava (2015-2018), Staal created parliaments with and for stateless, autonomous groups and blacklisted political organisations in Northern Syria.17 It consisted of a dome structure with circular seating that hosts a summit during which stateless democracy is practiced based on a range of communal politics, including local self-governance, gender equality, and communal economy. Called an artistic and political organisation rather than an artwork, it is part of a series of New World Summits (2012-ongoing) that, we could argue, reach their peak emancipatory potential when entering the art world. Museum as Parliament (2018 ongoing) was developed for the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and restaged to introduce its ideas to the wider public and forge new alliances.18 Its emancipatory potential is gained by its transformative ability to be relevant in another realm, to educate and to grow.
It sounds like Staal is re-firing the debate around relational aesthetics, of the emancipatory potential of situation and action versus representation. The strength of Staal’s practice resides in his negotiation of the public space, and political and institutional realities. In 1954, political theorist Hannah Arendt asked ‘what kind of reality does truth possess if it is powerless in the public realm?’19 Her question remains relevant today as we consider ideas of the common and hypernormality — the new normal — the simpler version that is so thick it feels immutable. What used to be the affair of a few isolated political and financial scandals is now an everyday experience. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis demonstrates how this reality is a manipulation of the world by those in power, which isn’t humanist in nature but self-interested. In writing about agency and the public space, Arendt argues for political action as human condition, and does so with a feminist perspective based on ethics and care.20 Political action for Arendt is not only performative, which is what she is often criticised for, but needs to be based on principles like ownership and agency, which are at the basis of Staal’s parliament. The polymorphous aspect of his projects resists representation in a traditional sense.
The problem with contemporary art that reproduces an aesthetic of media images is that it normalises the aesthetic of the War on Terror and its message, and therefore contributes to the new normality it was set to criticise. Brophy points to the curatorial responsibility in this reproduction, and to the mainstream success of contemporary art, because it talks to an existing set of values within an institutional system wanting to be progressive. It’s a voiding effect, for art that intends to be political but whose initial effect, its political reality, is voided. It’s the unreality of contemporary art. Normality is the dangerous aspect of the equation. For writer Angela Nagle, it is the normalisation of marginal subcultures on the internet that empowers mainstream voices from both the right and left of political power, and that led to the thickening of White Supremacy.21 In art terms, this is equal to contemporary art trends that affect our cultural reality with the aesthetics of the War of Terror, that could apply to the representation of other cultural motifs throughout history. As opposed to a staging of politics within the realm of art, Jonas Staal is one example of an artist for whom art and politics are inseparable. Where art and politics can mutually affect the other, Staal’s work mutates from one sphere to the other with the same message, which is not to say that aesthetic values and experience are diminished. Another example of this is the work of Australian Tom Nicholson with his solo exhibition Public Meeting at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (6 April –19 June 2019). The resonance with Staal’s parliaments goes beyond the potentiality of public gathering and the art exhibition as meeting, because both engage in forms of political futuring through art. Challenging Australia’s colonial history and the representation of Aboriginal people, Nicholson’s works hinge between the past and the future. They reformulate historical moments not as an actualisation of the past but as a way of understanding what it means for an us in the future, and the question of a treaty with First Nations people is a pivotal aspect of the exhibition.
If Nicholson and Staal engage emerging power to make the construction of a new world not just imaginable but possible, they seem to make art the possibility of an impossibility, and this is how philosopher Alain Badiou defines reality.22 For Badiou, the motif of the financial scandal is a window access onto the real. Scandals shouldn’t be true, but their actualisation makes what is unimaginable, and unethical, happen. It’s a kind of violence that occurs rhythmically to maintain the normality of the day-to-day realism of capitalism. This is quite the opposite of what Adam Curtis proposed in HyperNormalisation with the idea of a superficial layer of reality made simpler. Instead of thinking about reality as a fake construction, we can propose to think of our experience of the real through a voiding effect of hypernormal reality. For this reason, the current debate on fighting fake news with facts is limited—and is accompanied by the return of research based, documentary or factual practice in art institutions. Post-truth society sees the questioning and redefinition of the political and media establishment, and therefore contemporary art and its institutions need to be challenged too. As Staal and Nicholson show us through their work, art can affect reality, but only through re-imagining and the practice of futuring.
Anabelle Lacroix is a curator and writer. She co- edited Writing in the Expanded Field with Lucinda Strahan, An Act of Showing: Rethinking artist run initiatives through place with Maria Miranda. She has contributed to Bureau and Museums Australia Magazine among others, and worked with Liquid Architecture, RMIT University and the University of Melbourne..