Conspiracy Theories and Experimental Form

“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”

-D.H Lawrence


I’ve made the argument that aesthetic technologies and techniques are ultimately derived from socio-political behavior and that artists should look to these emergent habits to discover new forms of art-making. Maybe this is obvious but this means that I think “Art” is the last place an artist (or anyone for that matter) should look for inspiration. So I want to spend sometime exploring unconventional sources for contemporary aesthetic forms.

For a while now I’ve been fascinated with the aesthetics of conspiracy theories.  Though conspiracy theories exist from other times and places, they are predominantly a product of the last sixty years of American history/media. Conspiracy theorists also make up one of the only mass-cultural aesthetic communities that remains a community of amateurs, uninterested in and uninteresting to commercialization. Yes, people sell books, movies, and t.v. shows based on conspiracy theories but those products represent only the tiniest fraction of the creative work in a field that is largely maintained by hobbyists who work and distribute their work for free. In historical terms, then, conspiracy theories represent one of the greatest undiscovered folk art movements of modern America.

The most popular targets for theories–the moon landing, the JFK assassination, 9/11– are also, not coincidentally I think,  the most dramatic photographic events in American history. More specifically, they are all distinguished by the huge differential between those who actually witnessed these events and those who witnessed them (in some cases, simultaneously) through photography. Conspiracy theorists  are fundamentally concerned with the difficulties of  the mass extension of historical truth through photography; their theories necessarily, become experiments in photographic comprehension. For in order to overturn a mainstream opinion, which itself is largely based on photographic evidence, conspiracy theorists must propose new ways of seeing and understanding these images if they are going to be persuasive. Because they are also almost always amateurs without privileged access, they work with the shared resource of public images and rarely reveal totally new content. Their work is the extreme formalization of the principles of remix culture into a research sub-culture.

Aesthetically, then, conspiracy theories are a rich source of formal experimentation.  In this context, I don’t care at all if a given conspiracy theory is true or even plausible–the content of theories is besides the point, it’s their formal innovations that interest me.

Above is a video of a video processing technique developed by the youtube user femr2. According to femr2, the technique, which creates “Smearograms”, can reveal otherwise imperceptible details in videos. Femr2 developed this processing technique for the specific needs of the so-called 9/11 “Truther” movement, a loosely affiliated community of (largely) amateur investigators devoted to disproving various parts of the official 9/11 story.

To create his Smearograms, femr2 first divides the image plane into a series of single pixel-wide columns, then he dedicates each frame of the video to one of these columns, showing that column’s changes over time, left to right within a single frame. It is essentially a series of snapshots–each frame of the video diagrams the progression of a single vertical column of pixels as it changes through the duration of the original video. Successive frames of the Smearogram move from left-to-right in the picture plane, column by column, so that the length (number of frames) of the final Smearogram is a function of the original video’s width in pixels.

Formally, this amounts to nothing less than the total inversion of the normal conventions of cinematography: space and time reverse roles. Usually in any photographic image, a given frame is expected to represent an illusionary two or three dimensional space; movement from the left of the frame to the right “represents” horizontal movement, movement up and down, vertical movement. The passage of time is reproduced by the linear presentation of frame after frame. If this sounds like a confusing way to explain how this works, it’s because it is so obvious we don’t even think about it: in normal film/video space is space and time is time. But in Smearograms space turns into time and time into space. The left to right (x) axis of a Smearogram frame shows changes over time to a single column of space, while each successive frame represents not elapsed time but spatial movement from one vertical pixel-column to the next.

Femr2’s formal innovation deserves to be thought of in terms of some of the great experiments of avant-garde filmmaking. I think, for example, we could productively compare femr2’s work with Gordon Matta-Clark’s short film City Slivers (1973), which was included in Peter Eleey’s remarkable 9/11 exhibition at P.S.1.

Using only in-camera editing, City Slivers juxtaposes various vertical slivers of New York City within a single frame. Cars wind their way through traffic; two revolving doors refract thin swatches of the street; a barge plies the east river, bathed in afternoon light. And in one of the final shots, taken from atop the newly finished Twin Towers, two horizontal black strips slowly recede to the edges like a curtain to momentarily reveal the south-facing skyline.

To include femr2 in the tradition of experimental filmmaking isn’t to validate the speculative content of his project. I happen to think the ideological content of these videos is nonsensical and worse, that manipulating the documentation of tragedy, though well precedented in Art History, is ethically suspect . But I don’t think this discredits the form.

Instead, I think such conspiracy theories are quintessential examples of how the social and political activity of a community generates new aesthetic techniques. For this reason, Smearograms seem far more interesting than any similar work of experimental but intentional “Art”. Smearograms illustrate the fundamentally open-ended and underdetermined meaning of any given technology (here, rudimentary digital-editing software and Youtube) as it exists “out there” in the real socio-political fabric. There is no accounting for what a given technology can or will do before it enters this field, all meaning is contingent on use. To whatever degree the “Art World” self-consciously identifies its techniques as useless (i.e. “art for art’s sake”), its members can only hope to engage with technology when they remain open to learning from those who develop meaning through everyday use. So finally, it’s these amateur, utilitarian aesthetic communities at-large that are literally the most experimental because they alone risk new tentative definitions of technologies without concern for historical trends or markets.