Learning from #Pizzagate
Whether the danger was existent or not, the menace was felt in the form of fear. What is not actually real can be felt into being.—Brian Massumi, The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat
In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the reliability of information escaped us. Hacked, leaked, and shared via social media, masses of misinformation came to a head, ushering in a moment in which “fake news” was as prevalent as the real thing. Months later, the conversation around fake news continues, although the term is now used as a flippant insult, a gesture of disregard for inconvenient revelations.
In my artistic practice, I often deploy conspiracy theories, or at least their methodology, as a tool to make meaning, fusing multiple disparate parts into a singular gestalt, or whole. Fake news and conspiracy theories go hand-in-hand, eschewing commonly held beliefs in favor of sensational narratives strung together by hidden connections. Last fall’s infamous #pizzagate—which posited Hillary Clinton as the head of a global sex-trafficking ring operating out of the basement of a Washington, DC, pizzeria—was a little bit of both: a conspiracy theory that spread through fake news articles, leading to real world consequences.
I was drawn to #pizzagate not only as an extreme case but because I grew up right next to Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria in question. As soon as #pizzagate surfaced, I quickly did enough research to assure myself that its claims were baseless, that the neighborhood hangout I had known and loved was not as sinister as the theory suggested. Then I kept going, driven to find the theory’s source, lineage, and effects.
A timeline, for those who weren’t quite as obsessed with #pizzagate as I was:
- October 7, 2016: WikiLeaks releases the emails of John Podesta, the chairman for Clinton’s presidential campaign.
- Internet users who frequent the Reddit forum “The_Donald” and “far-right” 4chan users comb the leaked emails for evidence of illegal activity, the suggestion of which has already been circulating around Twitter via various fake news outlets.
- Some of Podesta’s personal emails are variously focused on pizza and Italian cooking—making dinner plans, sharing recipes, etc.
- An email sent to Podesta regarding a lost handkerchief is linked to the “handkerchief code,” traditionally used by gay men to indicate sexual preferences in public spaces. The handkerchief is described as having a “map that seems pizza-related” and, alternatively, as “white/black.”
- A 4chan user connects the phrase “cheese pizza” to the initials “c.p.,” which stands for child pornography on some Internet chat boards.
- Following this lead, users focus their attention on all pizza or food-related emails, highlighting an exchange between Podesta and James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, in which Alefantis offers to host a fundraiser for Clinton at his restaurant.
- Convinced the emails are coded, users develop a key allowing them to replace more food-related words with words that relate to child pornography and sexual abuse. Emails are then reinterpreted using this key.
- The burgeoning theory gains a name: #pizzagate. Fake news articles on the subject are disseminated via Facebook and Twitter, gaining traction among Clinton’s opposition.
- Users comb through Google Maps and Instagram accounts as businesses associated with Comet Ping Pong are wrapped into the narrative. Alefantis, his employees, and his neighbors begin to receive threats.
- The full-scale theory of a child sex-trafficking ring—led by Hillary Clinton and operating out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong—emerges.
- December 4, 2016: Edgar M. Welch, 28, having read about #pizzagate on Facebook, drives six hours from North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong, enters with an AR-15 rifle and a handgun, and fires the rifle into the floor of the pizzeria. No one is harmed. Discovering no enslaved children on the premises, he surrenders to police.
- The Reddit thread #pizzagate is banned, and major media outlets including the New York Times and FOX News debunk the theory.
- Theorists double down and claim that the media is staging a wide-scale cover-up. They determine that they have discovered a conspiracy within a conspiracy as “fake news” becomes a catch-all term.
- Months later, #pizzagate is still alive and well, skulking quietly in the corners of the Internet, kept alive by a captive audience of right and far-right leaning individuals, the true believers.
#pizzagate’s bizarre progression from lost handkerchiefs to assault rifles relied on belief, which trespasses somewhere between knowledge and faith and provokes conclusions that balance precariously on a foundation of doubt. (Your average conspiracy theorist is doomed to a Sisyphean pursuit of knowledge for which there is no relief.) Past belief, #pizzagate was fueled by confirmation bias—the interpretation of new “evidence” as further proof of previously held ideas. Confirmation bias allowed the mere mention of Italian food to become sinisterly euphemistic, while selective images and symbols became especially powerful pieces of “evidence.” For example, Comet Ping Pong’s sign features stars and crescent moons, which in this context were tied to Pagan imagery. Even art was not immune, as theorists examined artworks in the collection of Tony Podesta, John Podesta’s lobbyist brother. Arch of Hysteria, a 1993 sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, was determined to bear a striking resemblance to the posed bodies of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims. An email from Marina Abramović, the performance artist, added a flair of Satanism after she invited the Podesta brothers to one of her occult-ish “Spirit Cooking” dinners. Considered individually and without bias, these tidbits might suggest a family that enjoys culture and cuisine, but if you’re predisposed to the belief that things are not what they seem, you can bend meaning at your will, twisting information to make sense of the world as you wish it to be.
This is exactly how conspiracy theorists’ minds work, and lately I’ve been wondering: Is it really so different from how artists and designers’ minds work? We are theorists in our own right—constantly seeking to uncover the thing that remains unseen and unsaid. We gather, we interpret, we decode, and we display. We use what we have to say what we can. We invent our own logics and develop our own languages. As purveyors of the subjective, we embrace surreality over reality, bizarre over banal. We relish our permission to stop making sense, and the slippery position that this puts us in. This has always been our space, claimed so that we may be free to create with as much rhyme or reason as we see fit. Being “right” has never been our concern; rather, we have been content to just be.
Now, however, as the barrier between the factual and fictional continues to dissolve, I’m not sure if such contentedness is an option. In the months since #pizzagate, the reliability of information has wavered, resulting in the mourning of imaginary massacres and unofficial Twitter accounts leaking information from within the White House. #pizzagate could not have been more indicative of the months, if not years, to come. Conspiracy is the new normal—its transparent form is more powerful, and more convincing, than many news stories.
As artists, we have always circulated in a post-truth world. In remembering, however, that the very act of making art is political—is protest—I’m more aware that my practice must be held to the standards that I expect from anyone who trades in the creation/dissemination of information. When everything is information and all sources are legitimate, our responsibility grows. I’d like to think, however, that this responsibility can be realized without restricting ourselves. If art and conspiracy theory are two sides of the same coin, perhaps we can twist, tear, cut, glue, weave, paint, and nail our way into the conversation. We can use familiar means, but to better ends. We can advertise our own worlds, whose content we inform. We can share where we have been, and where we hope to go. This isn’t an argument in favor of escapism, or a delusion that the consequences of a piece of art and an executive order are comparable. This is, rather, a recognition of disorder and the creative opportunities that it affords. If fiction can become fact, we can create our own theories, sewn out of our own truths and shared in our own words, and in doing so, question the present and write the future.
What is not actually real can be felt into being.