“Why does so much new art look conspiratorial?”

In preparation for attending Conspiratorial Aesthetics at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts I read the curatorial statement. In it the curator, Christopher Reitz, asks the question above. And it’s all I can remember of the statement.

Why does so much new art look conspiratorial?

Why does so much new art look conspiratorial?

Why does so much new art look conspiratorial?

Why does so much new art look conspiratorial?

Why does so much new art look conspiratorial?

Cara Benedetto, Stone Broke, 2018. Lithographic Stone, processed and broken. Image courtesy of the Cressman Center for Visual Arts


Cara Benedetto, missing, 2018. (Blood from Stone), Lithograph print with drawing. Image courtesy of artist, Chapter NY, and the Cressman Center for Visual Arts.

You see what happens there? I mean, yes, if you mobilize the subject of the sentence it propositions the reader with varying theoretical implications: socio-economic, neo-liberal, art historical, aesthetic, and so on. But, more importantly it positions the reader to question the asker. . . which humorously enough validates the question: it appears we are living in a hyper-conspiratorial moment  and social trust appears to be at a nadir.

When I’m posed with a question such as “Why does so much new art look conspiratorial?” I don’t try to answer the question. I wonder why the asker is asking in the first place.

installation shot. (from left to right), Deb Sokolow, !Mediengruppe bitnik, Raqs Media Collective. Image courtesy of the Cressman for Visual Arts.

To pull, again, from the curatorial statement, “Conspiratorial Aesthetics invites us to consider the role of informational art in the “information age,” an era obsessed by networks of information exchange and therefore plagued by conspiracy theories, the aestheticization of information, and undemocratic control of the networks information travels.” Conspiratorial Aesthetics includes work by Cara Benedetto, !Mediengruppe bitnik, Raqs Media Collective, Walid Raad, and Deb Sokolow. Cara Benedetto, Deb Sokolow, and Walid Raad’s work collaborate to facilitate the material relationship between printmaking, drawing, and research—they offer their points in the visualization or fetishization of the journal, or the aesthetic of the obsessed.  !Mediengruppe bitnik and Raqs Media Collective look at media, one print and one digital, to scrutinize and reclaim ownership over public events and information.

Cara Benedetto is an artist, author, and educator working out of Richmond, Virginia whose work predominately offers itself up as critique of the patriarchal systems and language that further predatory behavior within academia. In addition to the three lithographs from the series “Blood from Stone” with drawn elements or text such as “the world is built for our defeat,” sits the lithography stone that the prints were pulled from. Broken. Right in half. This stone sits, simultaneously processed and unusable—becoming an indication of process that formulated the physicality of its own truth—a validation of the artists’ theory. Benedetto returned for an  artist talk in which she made mention that she chose a stone that wasn’t perfectly level (a quality that is required of a successful litho stone) so that “intentional invisibilities would occur.” Her choice validated its effort—she applied decisive poetics to her process and her material paid the price—a physical reminder of the fallacy of stability, and the ease with which a crack in the institutional stratosphere can become a canyon. Where the rest of the exhibition feels contemporary in its references to car bombs, assassinations, Ashley Madison, and newspaper revisions, Benedetto’s litho prints paired with this giant piece of limestone remind us of the age and density of our institutional traumas.

Where Benedetto confronts our academic traumas, Raqs Media Collective (composed of Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi & Shuddhabrata Sengupta) Bengalis’ follows its self-declared imperative of ‘kinetic contemplation’ to produce a trajectory that is restless in its forms and methods, yet concise with the infra procedures that it invents.”[1] “Corrections to the First Draft of History” literally as well as metaphorically ‘rewrites’ on newsprint (specifically in this exhibition, the pink financial pages of the New York Times) of the world so as to speak of making new sets of meanings for what is considered history in our present times.” The title refers to ‘The First Book of Reading’, a text written in 1850 by a man called Peary Churn Sarkar, who wrote the text for Bengalis (Raqs Media Collective is based out of New Delhi, India) to learn English. Raqs Media Collective proclaims, rightfully so, that with a new primer, or lens, comes a new world, and a new time. The Collective here proceeds to observe that having the opportunity to consume history as its being presented grants you the opportunity to correct history or maintain the flexibility in its form. It offers up the joy of reclaiming, and correcting your truth.

!Mediengruppe bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at Work in Louisville, 2018. Image courtesy of the Cressman Center for Visual Arts.

When Ashley Madison, the site notoriously invented and marketed toward hopeful adulterers, was hacked in 2015, it was revealed that a large number of women using the site were actually computer bots designed to fool men into paying for premium accounts. According to the curatorial statement, “!Mediengruppe downloaded these bots, here specifically the ones that claimed to live in Louisville, and then gave them physical presence. They programed digital faces for the women, and put them in the gallery space to converse with one another.” Along with several television screens that have been elevated on metal stands (allowing the television to become figurative) there glows a fluorescent pink-magenta light that vaguely recalls the red-light districts of pre-digitized sexual availability under monetized circumstances.

When considering this element of the Ashley Madison controversy I couldn’t help but recall two different ideas that had been willowing around in my brain since having read them a couple of months back: 1) Vilem Flusser’s “Into the Universe of Technical Images”concerning the automation of the processing of technical images and what a future telematic society would look like[2], and (2) Luke Tredinnick’s “Post-structuralism, hypertext, and the World Wide Web” (2006). In which Tredinnick “explores the application of post-structuralist theory to understand hypertext and the World Wide Web, and the challenge posed by digital information technology to the practices of the information profession.”[3] When examined together and applied to “Ashley Madison Angels at Work in Louisville” I no longer consider the conspiratorial qualities of tricking customers because—hello, it’s called marketing— I rather focus on the formulation of mimicry in cultivating a bot vocabulary in order to seduce— and how those words are chosen, stored, and expanded upon. In Tredinnik’s text, he contemplates the evolution of “systems of indexing” and even considers the beginnings of hypertext—influenced by the idea of the Memex machine (Nelson, 1945)— where devices would collect our memories, allow us access, and distribute said memories in necessary fashion. It relates to Flusser’s theories, via the analogy of words and communication to pixels and photographs. Where digitized images are literally composed of invisible particles, so are conversations. Language becomes this invisible and hugely fallible manipulator, to be stored, replicated, and monetized.

I wonder what happened to the memories and data stored by the Ashley Madison bots? To return to poetics, how do they remember their experience of the world.? Or better yet, who or what permits them to remember? I suppose there is an unrequited fun or sense of game in considering the conspiracy. And so perhaps, in addition to our communal trust issues so prevalent in contemporary life, conspiracy offers the opportunity to fantasize and extrapolate information that we have but can’t grant proper explanation.

Conspiratorial Aesthetics is installed at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts until April 6th, 2019.

–Megan Bickel

[1] “Works.” Raqs Media Collective. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.raqsmediacollective.net/.

[2] Flusser, Vilém. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Translated by Nancy Ann Roth. Electronic Mediations Vol. 32. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Accessed July, 2018.

[3] Tredinnick, Luke. “Post‐structuralism, Hypertext, and the World Wide Web.” Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspective 59, no. 2 (2007): 169-86. Accessed October 7, 2018.

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