What follows is an edited transcript from And Besides, It’s True, an evening of screenings and discussion devoted to disinformation and rumor, presented by Triple Canopy with Spectacle Theater on April 1, 2021. After the screening of a short film by the French filmmaker Natalie Magnan, Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu, et en plus c’est vrai! (There’s No Smoke without Fire, and Besides, It’s True!) (1996), and presentations of found footage and media clips by the artists Paige K. B. and Tiffany Sia, Spectacle volunteer Steve MacFarlane and Triple Canopy senior editor Matthew Shen Goodman spoke with K. B. and Sia about pre-internet rumor, meme culture, never-ending war, and Pizzagate.
Matthew Shen GoodmanA primary thesis of this event is that this seemingly contradictory mix of paranoid skepticism and frantic will-to-believe is too often myopically coded as something deeply American and incredibly recent, i.e., mainly the province of last January’s Capitol rioters and their ilk. I think each of tonight’s contributors has disproved this in their own way. Given that Natalie Magnan’s not here, of course, I was wondering if Steve could speak to her work and how it triangulates conspiratorial thinking, geopolitics, and media history.
Steve MacfarlaneIt’s funny to think this was broadcast on “regular” television, but it’s true: the film was produced as part of a short-lived series for Canal+ called Eye of the Hurricane. As I understand it, the idea was to give state funding to people so that they would get out of the box and produce short documentaries or even essay films. Magnan was heavily influenced by Barthes and the film critic Serge Daney, and was part of a generation considering, from a structuralist perspective, how media’s dissemination fed into dreams, nightmares, and anxieties—in the body politic but also on the more intimate, individual level. So the film is a fascinating treatise on how television and mass media can propagate rumor, which becomes an interminable scourge: present no matter what, no matter how you clarify the means of instrumentation. Unlike some of the stuff we’re putting into dialogue here—which presumes people can get on the “right side of history” if they have the correct information—Magnan was having fun with it. She sees her own complicity as someone who loves old American movies that were basically forced on conquered Allied countries as part of the Marshall Plan, and she doesn’t extricate herself from the lure or the fun of those exchanges. It’s a very pre-internet way of thinking about the spread of what we would call fake news.
Shen GoodmanIt was fascinating to see Orson Welles surrounded by journalists with microphones, expressing remorse for trolling everyone via radio: “I had no idea this would be this bad.”
MacfarlaneWelles was probably being disingenuous then, too. But the idea of publicly performed remorse seems very twentieth-century to me, very antiquated. Somebody in his position today would likely double down on their misinformation, take ownership.
Paige K. B.And turn it back on the accuser. I’m interested in how any sense of humility or shame—or simply appreciating the limits of one’s own knowledge—is coded as weakness or lack of conviction. This seems to play out in varying degrees in American culture and politics. Recently, conspiracy-fueled movements such as QAnon have combined this fantastic sense of hope with the manipulations of digital algorithms to make a story go viral. Delusional as these movements are, they speak to a transfer of countercultural momentum from the left to the right over the past decade or so. The conviction of these movements’ supporters is immune to critique or feedback. Only they can change their own minds, and their vision of the future is based on a specific and tidy reading of the past. It’s not even that they’re plugging their ears—the opposite, in fact. “Listen to everyone, read everything, believe nothing until you, yourself, can prove it with your own research.” That’s what Milton William Cooper, author of the 1991 conspiracy classic Behold a Pale Horse, would say on his radio program The Hour of the Time, which broadcast from 1992 until the writer’s death in a shootout with federal agents in 2001. Today’s do-your-own-research ethic has a countercultural flair to it—we aren’t sheep who read the New York Times!—that feels in line with the separatist impulse, characteristic of all sorts of strident or breakaway groups, from nineteenth-century Shakers to DIY punk communes. These movements also play with—or lay a foundation for—your sense of reality.
This reminds me of comedian Andy Kaufman’s work, where the question is always, “Is this for real or is it a joke?” The thing is, both can be true. And when inside jokes get into the general water supply, things can get messy. It’s also not necessarily inherently political. But as we have seen in recent years with disinformation on the internet influencing real life, a certain tugging at the loose threads of reality or exploiting people’s distrust or suspicion is absolutely a political gesture with real effects. What was a countercultural jokiness for the left in a past age—Hunter S. Thompson making things up in his journalism about Democratic politicians he didn’t personally support; the culture jamming of groups like Negativland or the Yes Men—is now deployed by a different political base for different ends. It’s horseshoe theory as practical joke.
Of course, these phenomena aren’t unique to America. They aren’t unique to Hong Kong. I’d even say they’re part of the lived experience in any society that has digital technology at this point. We were talking about Pepe the Frog before this event as a crossover symbol, for instance.
Tiffany SiaThere’s a breakdown when these symbols, taken as universal, are demonstrated to be otherwise. Pepe is a classic duck-rabbit situation. Created by cartoonist Matt Furie as a slacker frog in the 2005 indie comic Boys Club, Pepe wasn’t inherently a figure that conjured any political meaning. Since then, however, he’s come to embody the cross-cultural barrier on the internet. Look at him one way and you see an American alt-right white supremacist symbol. Look at him another way and he represents the fight against authoritarianism and police in Hong Kong. There’s an illusion about the borderless world of symbols, especially on the internet, but in fact they’re quite specific to place. Not all symbols in meme culture are shared in the same way, and this is most viscerally evident with an example like Pepe.
K. B.Yes, Pepe’s totally contextual. Pepe meant something in 2008, meant something completely different by 2016, and the meaning will probably change again by 2025. This is just the conspiratorial mindset writ large: we’re always digging for clues, looking for connections, asking what this or that signifies.
SiaThere’s so much wild speculation around these symbols, especially around sexual deviance.
K. B.It’s an odd obsession, especially the preponderance of pedophilia in the QAnon narrative. You have to ask, “Why are you so interested?” Recently, this obsession was parodied on an episode of South Park (which I’d argue is the original Twitter): the Q Shaman, a guy who probably crashed into most Americans’ consciousnesses during the January riots at the US capitol, is hired as a tutor and comes into a kid’s room and starts telling him about Q. He’s like, “Do you know what pedophilia is?” The kid says no, so the Shaman answers, “Here, let me show you!”
Of course, people can get roped into this stuff through seemingly innocuous movements like #savethechildren, which got started this past summer. Who could argue with concern for children’s safety? Reel them in with child trafficking and then hit them with “the global cabal of blood drinkers” or the “Clinton body count.” In the US, kids are set up as a paragon of innocence in an otherwise craven and corrupt society, so they become a battleground for whatever values that people are generally most anxious about.
SiaThe speculation and obsession with sexual deviance also feeds into statecraft and intimidation tactics. This is the case with Vicky Xu, who published an extensive report in 2020 on the Chinese government using Uyghurs as forced labor in Xinjiang. Deep-faked pornographic videos and images of her were circulated on the internet, along with rumors about her sex life and promiscuity. A similar tactic was employed to taint the image of protesters in Hong Kong: pro-Beijing lawmakers pushed widespread rumors that female protestors were sleeping with men in order to encourage them to join the frontlines.
K. B.Which means the movement has no legitimacy because it’s actually about sex, right? Setting aside the reality that politics can be a sublimation of sex, and sex can be part of a political strategy, it’s women as the bearers of sexuality disrupting otherwise rational civic processes. Female as agent of chaos: that’s a tale as old as time. Maybe, like in the Gamergate scandal—which thrived on 8chan, the same message board that later grew with QAnon—what’s being articulated is a discomfort or offense that women are present at all. People are waging a kind of war by discrediting women in order to neutralize any influence they could have.
SiaThat brings up the question: where are the most fertile grounds for rumor? There’s this faux news element that David Cromwell and David Edwards write about in their book Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality (2018): “A propaganda blitz is often launched on the back of allegedly dramatic new evidence indicating that an establishment enemy should be viewed as uniquely despicable and actively targeted. The basic theme: This changes everything!” There’s a demand from the timeline of breaking news that creates a similar affective tenor and urgency—take the pill! See the event for what it actually is!
MacfarlaneI shouldn’t have said “pre-internet” in reference to the Magnan film; I should have said “pre-The Matrix.” Because her film really is kind of the opposite of taking the pill. She depicts the horrible stew of disinfo, misinfo, whatever you want to call it; we’re all living with it just by being human beings. That’s a harder sell. In some ways, however, it’s a more comforting antidote to the current mentality, where people are constantly looking to have or produce these cathartic epiphanies that change everything. (“This. Changes. Everything.”) And we’re obviously speaking at a time when people are physically constrained to their homes, but certainly over the last ten years there’s also been the development of social media as a means to take action without physically taking action, in order to feel like you’re participating in these discourses or political struggles without actually putting anything on the line.
SiaThere’s a Cantonese term, 離地 (lei dei), that translates as “off the ground,” or “your feet are not touching the floor.” Figuratively, it means “to be out of touch.” The term seems very appropriate to the armchair reactionary analysis so common these days,where people are behind their computer screens, very far away from any action—literally on the other side of the world, at times—weighing in on how legitimate or illegitimate a protest or movement is. Or they’re proffering opinions on how effective material strategies are, treating the question as an intellectual exercise.
MacfarlaneI’m just speaking anecdotally, but the most conspiracy-minded people I know are older, and they get the bulk of their news from radio, the oldest and least of-the-moment platform or medium. I guess if it’s on in the background for a certain number of hours, it’ll just seep into your brain. Even if you maintain this idea of yourself as, per the film, “a man who can control the image,” which is to say as someone who’s discerning, who can sift true from false.
SiaIt’s quite interesting how conspiracy theorists blame everything on the deep state and the collusion between secretive forces—which, frankly, happens—but they’re often not interested in what these forces are or how they truly operate. Instead, they favor a false dichotomy of, say, East versus West. This is the case, especially, with understanding the deep state and its role in foreign diplomacy. There is a popular conspiracy theory that the US government was a central force in fueling the Hong Kong protests, which was propagated by pro-Chinese and Hong Kong government news outlets, as well as by so-called “tankies,” under the guise of anti-imperialist politics. In reality, there are multiple hegemonies at play, and what happened on the ground escapes this dichotomy of Western empire versus whomever else. The proposed 2019 law that would allow Hong Kong people to be extradited and tried in mainland courts sparked the protests, but they were further fueled by a violent police force operating with impunity. The 7/21 incident saw open collusion between organized crime in the form of the triads and the police: the triads beat protesters coming out of a subway station after a mass demonstration, and were photographed elsewhere shaking hands with the police.
Rumors had already existed in Cantonese spaces, online and off, before 2019—largely unverifiable and underreported by foreign journalists at the time—that, during the Umbrella protests in 2014, the police had hired triads to help the police disperse the protesters’ camps by violently attacking them. Whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere, when this kind of crisis and oppression occurs, what does it mean to have a capacious and rigorous research methodology that enables events to be understood? The false dichotomy asks: do we listen the New York Times or a Chinese state newspaper like the Global Times? But we also need to prioritize primary accounts, as well as the people who experience these events, both of which “fake news” often obscures. This becomes a particular challenge when one’s ability to look at primary accounts is inhibited by language barriers or by the threats of censorship, retaliation, and harassment to those who speak out.
In Cantonese, the term for provocateurs and foreign infiltrators, usually referring to secret police, is 鬼 (gwai). There’s an apparitional quality to the secret and opaque forces of power; they’re inherently elusive, difficult to see. It’s like summoning a ghost. Can you see them? Are they there?
MacfarlaneThe intensity with which these things have gone from being marginal, fringe issues to being front and center in American political discourse seems to speak to some sort of heartbreak that happened between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when people really believed in “objective journalism”—or the idea that you could read multiple press outlets from different political perspectives and synthesize them to get a perfect, averaged-out view. Today, chaos reigns, I guess. Working on the trailer for this event, I revisited the incredible Pizzagate documentary Out of Shadows. The movie is about two Hollywood stuntmen who “did everything right”: they climbed the food chain in the stunt business, dying a million times on a million big-budget action movies, only to realize that everything is controlled by a very small cabal of people. (They also find Jesus along the way.) In some ways, I found myself really sympathizing with them as they discovered that, in fact, the country is run by two Republican parties, with no alternatives—and, parallel to that, the vast majority of the content that we spend our lives talking about is handed down from a handful of mega corporations. In another way, I was like, “No shit, guys!” So I don’t know. I’m not a Pizzagater but I definitely found myself in the same position of spectator-consumer, trying to sift true from false as I watched it.
MacfarlaneEven if the wars are officially or unofficially declared over, we’re still keeping all the military bases.
K. B.Perhaps the real friends were the military bases we built along the way.
MacfarlaneI don’t mean to be pedantic, but I wouldn’t say that protesting the Iraq War doesn’t matter or didn’t matter. You could say that didn’t stop the war from happening, sure. But look at the huge nationwide protest movement that emerged last summer: record numbers of protesters on the streets—unprecedented for a civil rights movement in this country—and even more people participating online because they didn’t want to go outside. So what do you listen to? The version on the timeline? (Which one?) Or what happens out in the streets? How do you determine the efficacy of those actions? This sounds corny, but you can never really determine what matters and what doesn’t, which means you still have to show up. We’re trapped in this situation for the rest of our adult lives.
K. B.Sure, you have to pick a story to go with. Meanwhile, there’s an overvaluing of transparency. We have something like the Mueller report, which is hundreds of pages long, but who’s going to sit down and read the whole thing? One is still going to have use for an article that summarizes the report. It’s not one-to-one: we don’t have the truth because the government has been transparent. And, of course, transparency isn’t always possible and isn’t necessarily good, especially if you’re considering the safety of vulnerable groups, such as sources for journalists or people who have to labor in anonymity to do certain kinds of work. Opacity may be necessary for truth. If the dignity of a subject is already compromised, then being the transparent messenger might just get you shot.
Triple Canopy and Spectacle Theater present And Besides, It’s True, an evening of screenings and discussion devoted to disinformation and rumor.
In the past year, we’ve desperately sought connection and copresence, whether through endless Zoom meetings or a riot at the capitol. Of course, these events are sorted into affiliations that are life-affirming or malign, the constant question in the time of social distancing and conspiracy theories being, “Why are you together?” Everyone is now both detective and skeptic: perhaps you didn’t see everything on the ground, and perhaps you’re being too credulous of someone’s online account. At the same time, this epistemology of paranoia and doubt is met with a frantic will to believe, which often devolves into casting for allegiances—the no-true-Scotsman fallacy writ large. (No true populist would ever sell Gamestock, no true constitutional patriot would actually storm the Senate chamber, no true revolutionary would cast aspersion on Xi Jinping Thought.) This contradiction of skepticism and belief is often presented as a deeply American, incredibly recent phenomenon—a framing that is both ahistorical and geographically myopic.
Considering the antecedents and global breadth of the present moment, the event will begin with a screening of Nathalie Magnan’s 1996 short film Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu, et en plus c’est vrai! (There’s No Smoke without Fire, and Besides, It’s True!). Magnan, a French media theoretician, translator, and filmmaker, was best known for her participation in early listservs and queer feminist mediajammer activism. Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu, et en plus c’est vrai! is a dense refraction of the information landscape of the time that leapfrogs from French radio broadcasts to man-on-the-street prank interviews to clips from The Twilight Zone and Dr. Seuss’s World War II-era Private Snafu cartoons. Taxonomizing the symbols and stories of viral hearsay throughout human history, Magnan gives a portrait of le rumeur as both irresistible force and pre-internet manifestation of media literacy run amok.
Following Magnan’s film, artists Paige K. B. and Tiffany Sia will each give presentations of found footage and media clips, tracing the distribution of psy-ops, censored messages, and subversive appeals through such varied networks as Twitter Live and The David Letterman Show. K. B. will consider the comedic angle of American manifestations of LARPing as reality, from Andy Kaufman to QAnon; Sia will examine the Rashomoning of Hong Kong protest footage and its legal implications.
The screening will be followed by a discussion with K. B. and Sia, alongside Triple Canopy senior editor Matthew Shen Goodman and Spectacle volunteer Steve Macfarlane.
This public program is made possible through generous support from Jane Hait, a founding member of Triple Canopy Director’s Circle; the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; the Jacques Louis Vidal Charitable Fund; the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the New York State Council on the Arts; and the Opaline Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Federation and Endowment Fund.
- Paige K. B. is an artist, writer, and erstwhile editor from Los Angeles. She has been an editor at Artforum and Garage, and her writing has been published in numerous magazines and books since 2013. Her recent exhibitions include an illegal installation at 13 East 31st Street and a legal one at the Canal Street Research Association, a space run by the group Shanzhai Lyric. She is currently assembling a body of work for Documenta 13.
- Tiffany Sia an artist, filmmaker, writer, and founder of Speculative Place, a project space in Hong Kong. She is the author of Salty Wet 咸濕 (Inpatient Press, 2019) the book-length sequel, Too Salty Too Wet 更咸更濕 (Speculative Place, 2021), which serves as the basis for her exhibition “Slippery When Wet” at Artists Space. Sia is the director of the short, experimental film Never Rest/Unrest (2020), which has screened at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival and will have its North American premiere at MoMA Documentary Fortnight. She is also part of Home Cooking, an artist collective founded by Asad Raza, and contributes to the group’s performance and reading series Hell Is a Timeline.