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Issue 222

How Moving-Image Artists Investigate the Era of ‘Alternative Facts’

In the age of ‘fake news’ Lukas Brasiskis analyses the moving-image artists recalibrating the optics on truth

BY Lukas Brasiskis in Columnists , Opinion | 27 OCT 21

After a decade in which the rhetoric of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ has become a political tool to raise reactionary sentiment, and scientific consensus on global climate change has coincided with the spread of science denialism, the postmodern erasure of the traditional binary divisions between true and false, fact and fiction begs to be questioned. What do various forms of simulated or fabricated truth tell us about the real and how do they represent intrinsic mechanisms of control and colonialism?

A number of moving-image artists have taken up these questions in an attempt to better understand this era of post-truth. In her work Art and Theft (2017), for instance, Sara Magenheimer explores the malfunctions of news media and mass storytelling techniques with an implicit emphasis on audio-visual manipulation. Her humorous and subversive take on storytelling – the fabrication of any tale from, say, an animal robbing a house to protestors taking to the streets of New York – echoes the unstable political landscape characteristic of the time when the video was made. Posing lies as simple truths and vice versa was a strategy often applied during the 2016 US presidential campaigns that persisted throughout Donald Trump’s presidency. Magenheimer uses absurdist techniques to ingeniously draw attention to the tenuous foundations of such strategies.

Forensic Architecture analyzes the invisible operations undergirding techno-politics to expose the conditions behind the production of false truths – or ‘truths’ that support the strategic dissemination of alternative facts. Their film Triple-Chaser (2019) – made for the Whitney Biennial in New York – is named for a tear-gas grenade manufactured by Safariland Group, owned by Warren B. Kanders, former vice chair of the board of trustees at the Whitney Museum. The film outlines the history of Triple-Chaser, its unreported international sales and its use by US agents against migrants in Tijuana and by Israeli forces in Palestine. In response to these aggressions, Forensic Architecture developed machine-learning software that helps uncover where the grenades are being launched or thrown, detailing in the film what their research has revealed. In a time when data mining by governments and tech corporations is being used to monitor the public, and when the personal information of internet users becomes a currency for the rich and powerful, Forensic Architecture has harnessed similar strategies to reveal the intricate mechanisms of state and corporative surveillance and control to investigate how they violate human rights.

Forensic Architecture, Triple Chaser, 2019. Courtesy: © Forensic Architecture and Praxis Films

Other artists employ tactics of appropriation and acceleration to reflect on the false reality of simulated environments. Works such as Finding Fanon Part Two (2015) by David Blandy and Larry Achiampong or She Puppet (2001) by Peggy Ahwesh co-opt imagery from popular video games to subvert patriarchal and colonial narratives to produce critiques accessible to the mainstream. Blandy and Achiampong turn Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013) into a reflection on Franz Fanon’s theory of decolonization, while Ahwesh renders Tomb Raider (1996–ongoing) a feminist essay on the male-centred perception of environment. Both works aim to engender a new critical community among mass audiences. To paraphrase Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on the possibility of a new political cinema in What Is Philosophy? (1991), these are the ‘people who do not [yet] exist’.

What is the power of falsehood? Can fiction, posing as fact, pull contemporary audiences out from the depths of informational echo chambers of biased truth-telling? Speaking in April as part of ‘Staying with the Troubled Real’ – an online panel discussion I moderated for e-flux in New York – theorist Tess Takahashi and moving-image artists Blandy, Magenheimer, Eric Baudelaire and Alison Nguyen stressed the importance of recalibrating the optics on truth in our current era. They agreed that the task of the moving-image artist today is not to reclaim an indexical relation to the real but, rather, to re-organize social reality, encouraging communities and collectives to identify fakery as a symptom of the present moment. As Baudelaire, paraphrasing Hannah Arendt’s thoughts expressed in ‘Truth and Politics’ (1967), stressed: ‘Thinking about factual truth and fiction is inseparable from thinking about the connections between people.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 with the headline ‘New Optics’.

Main Image: Forensic Architecture, Triple Chaser, 2019. Courtesy: © Forensic Architecture and Praxis Films

Lukas Brasiskis is associate curator of video and film for e-flux, a PhD candidate at the Department of Cinema Studies, New York University, USA, and an adjunct lecturer at NYU and Brooklyn College.