When Fact Is Fiction: Documentary Art in the Post-Truth Era
When Edgar Maddison Welch opened fire on Comet Ping Pong’s storage closet, he was convinced he would find evidence of a global pedophile ring on the other side. On December 4, 2016, 25 days after the shock election of Donald Trump, Welch made a 350-mile drive from his home in Salisbury, North Carolina, and calmly entered the popular DC pizzeria brandishing an AR-15 rifle. Investigators concluded that Welch’s enthrallment with this thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory was crystalized by a YouTube video entitled PIZZAGATE: The Bigger Picture. The conspiracy has since morphed into “QAnon,” and is endorsed by almost a dozen GOP Congressional candidates. 2016 heralded our “post-truth” age, an era in which disinformation runs rampant online, brazen lies are fashioned with impunity, and discourse has become increasingly toxic. Though the current crisis is uniquely defined by our digital “reality,” the condition itself is not new. Citizens of authoritarian and corrupt regimes around the world have long endured the phenomenon’s hallmarks. The Oxford English Dictionary declared post-truth its 2016 word of the year, defining the term as a circumstance in which “facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” “What might be the role of fiction,” asks Nele Wynants, “at a time when fake news, alternative facts, and infotainment undermine the integrity of politics and the media? What is the place of the imagination in how we understand and create the reality around us?”
When Fact is Fiction: Documentary Art in the Post-Truth Era, of which Wynants is editor, is preoccupied with the latter query. Despite its title, the contemporary context of online culture, populism, and “fake news” are almost entirely absent from its pages. The ramifications of conspiracy theories are never discussed (neither Welch nor Pizzagate are mentioned) and Donald Trump is namechecked only in passing. Instead, the book’s 13 contributors, among them artists, photographers, broadcasters, and filmmakers, analyze projects that exemplify the discursive and rhetorical value of blurring the distinction between fiction and reality. “Fiction pulls us into the world of the possible, the thinkable, and the speculative,” Wynants states in her introduction, resulting in audiences “thinking outside of the box and exploring new territories”—an artistic premise held so sacrosanct, that it goes entirely unchallenged.
Wynants’s assertion is exemplified by Sigrid Merx’s contribution on “Between Realities #Athens,” a five-day “action-research event” hosted by Platform-Scenography (P-S). Held in 2016, Merx and other P-S members utilized scenographic strategies to reexamine the city’s urban spaces. In one instance, an abandoned shopping arcade, a sight synonymous with the Greek economic crisis, was reimagined by participants as a theatrical stage, opening up a discussion on how audiences might repurpose the space. “To look at familiar spaces in a new way requires looking beyond what we have come to believe is there,” Merx writes. As a result, the participants “were able to undo [their] one-dimensional […] understanding of the city.”
In a similar vein, a performance by artist Arkadi Zaides reimagines TALOS (Transportable Autonomous Patrol for Land Border Surveillance), a multimillion EU project that sought to fund the construction of autonomous tanks to patrol the bloc’s land borders and deter migrants. Though the devices were ultimately never deployed, Zaides “pre-enacted” the project as part of a multimedia performance that blended the project’s archive with fabricated and conjectural material. Zaides underscored the violence of TALOS by replacing a projection of moving dots on a map (signifying human targets) with real drone footage.
In their essay, Zaides’s collaborators Jonas Rutgeerts and Nienke Scholts, discuss the project’s mythological namesake (in The Argonautica, Talos is the giant automaton tasked with protecting Europa), observing that the EU project sought to “shape our vision on the future of Europe’s protection by aligning [it] with Europe’s mythical past.” The project’s success, they argue, lay not in its realization, but in its discursive proposition. “In a very subtle way TALOS intervenes in our imagination of the future, suggesting that the deployment of robotic systems is an inevitable and logical progression.” Thus, by “pre-enacting” TALOS, Zaides’s performance critiques the project’s techno-solutionist assumptions. In alluding to the role of big data, algorithmic dependence, and artificial intelligence, Rutgeerts and Scholts are also the only book contributors to truly hone in on the technological instruments of our post-truth era.
Another highlight is Katharina Smets’s essay on her radio documentary work, in which she grapples with the dilemma of recounting stories in the first-person. Smets engages with peers, including the BBC’s Alan Hall, This American Life host Ira Glass, and Danish producer Rikke Houd, to explore the “unanticipated narrative mechanisms” of first-person framing and its attendant vulnerability. Though most of Smets’s peers prefer to let their subjects recount their own stories, Houd concludes that the first-person framework “creates the necessary distance for analyzing [a] situation.”
Conversely, Kaitlin Prest, the producer of No, a radio series dedicated to sexual consent, observes that traditional narrative structures—with a “tidy beginning, middle, and end, and a clear conflict”—are wholly inadequate vehicles for her fraught subject, where interviewees can have entirely contrasting interpretations of critical decisions and events. The #MeToo movement, though unmentioned in the book, hit its stride in our post-truth era, and encapsulates the disproportionate influence that narrative framing, appearances, and power-differentials have over a justice system that remains structurally unfit for survivors. The stakes for truth and justice have never been higher, which is why the book’s predominant focus on fiction’s artistic value often feels myopic and underbaked.
When Fact is Fiction will disappoint readers looking for projects and artistic strategies that are explicitly tethered to our current crisis. There’s scant discussion of the monumental cultural, technological, and epistemic shifts wrought by the internet, or what it means to be an artist at this juncture. Smets, Wynants, and two other contributors sit on the editorial board of FORUM+, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to “research and arts in the Low Countries,” which explains When Fact is Fiction’s northern European bent. Though it spotlights the work of non-European artists (including photographers Alejandro Cartagena and Laia Abril), it essentially serves as an informative snapshot of the Dutch and Belgian art scenes. The book is best described as a group exhibition in anthology form, and as is typical of most group shows, the overarching theme can often feel like a tenuous branding exercise.