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Theorist workEdward Marshall Shenk

The all-American art of the conspiracy theory

From Nazi coconut water to Monster Energy Drink's illuminati past, how artist Edward Shenk is taking the truth to the wilds of the internet

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. 

Today, it's the turn of Rhizome, the New York-based website-cum-platform that has celebrated, created and discussed fine art at its intersect with technology sicne before most of us had dialup. Started as an email list in 1996, its now a commissioning body, a community and a magazine hosting events from the global technologist x artist series Seven On Seven to e-cigs creativity. For their day, they'll be showcasing a pair of rad downtown artists and telling us the major motors in US net art now. In this piece, their very own Zachary Kaplan gets to grips with Edward Shenk's Theorist Works, note-perfect parodies of conspiracy theory imagery. 

Right now on highway 495 just outside Boston there’s a road sign that would be a completely unremarkable node in the United States transportation system except for what’s flamboyantly spray-painted across it: W T C 7. Someone driving home from her July 4th holiday will spot this perplexing jumble. Out of curiosity, it’ll stick with her. And when she gets home that evening, she’ll pop open her laptop and google it. Page after page of links will soon fill her screen, and she’ll be initiated into the language of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. 

W T C 7 is shorthand for World Trade Center, Tower 7. On September 11th this was the only other building that came down, alongside the two towers, after the plane strikes and ensuing fires. Building 7 wasn’t directly attacked, and for Truthers—those who believe that 9/11 was an “inside job”—its anomalous destruction was the slip-up that revealed the whole event to be a sham. Interest piqued, our Bostonian weekender will discover an entire cosmology of references and buzzwords: 

False flag operation: an illegal government military operation conducted under the flag of another nation/body (see also: Operation Northwoods) 

Project for the New American Century: An American think tank that in September 2000 released a report, Rebuilding America's Defenses, suggesting that a “New Pearl Harbor” was needed to unify the United States against its enemies (see also: Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, Robert Kagan, William Kristol)

David Rockefeller: Heir to the Rockefeller Family fortune, heavily involved in politics at the think tank level, working to form a new world order under a single international government (see also: population control, Trilateral Commission, the Fabians)

Jargon colorfully distinguishes a subculture—slang and shorthand are alluring, with the agitprop purpose of sewing you up in the narrative of the world they seek to advance. 

Of course, conspiracy theorists have been around for centuries; one need only visit a second-hand bookstore to pick up a worn copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 9/11, in fact, only brought into broad relief a particularly American spin on eons-old paranoia. Jonathan Kay's continually useful 2011 travelog, Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground, diagnoses this indigenous conspiracism as one united and accelerated by religious apocalypticism, political populism, and rapid technological advancement, resulting in what he calls "flowchart conspiracism", thanks to the "imagining of a complex organizational chart linking all of America’s power centers, from media companies to drug makers to the CIA, to one central, all-controlling secular Antichrist". 

What makes that spray-painted W T C 7 so potent, then, is the ease with which our Independence Day reveler can google the term and discover whole bodies of proponent-produced photos and video "proof." Close-ups of archival jpegs marked up to show brown blobs of planted thermite; videos overlaid to illustrate inconsistencies in the video record; jokey image macros (single images with big blocky text—think Doge) sending up sheeple who dismiss W T C 7 findings. Now more than ever, conspiracy theories circulate by image as much as word; crystalline flowchart logic is fully, convincingly rendered and readily available in crystalline flowchart form.

That’s why the practice of an artist working across language and image, an artist like Edward Marshall Shenk, can prove so insightful and incisive. His Theorist artworks perfectly capture the logic and structure of what one could call the “crowd-sourced” conspiracy theory. He created, with artist and critic Brad Troemel, a body of image macros that took on the look and feel of Truther and right-wing, anti-Obama propaganda while simultaneously subverting it through absurdist content. Shenk found that the logic of the images often followed the formula of paralleling two images or magnifying one to expose some heretofore unaccepted truth—image X paralleled with Y to point out that they are actually one in the same Z, etc. There is no such thing as pure coincidence, and that’s a hallmark of paranoia.

These macros were intended to circulate on the Jogging—a popular Tumblr blog with an open-submission policy, known for a certain style of art meme, images and ideas recycled and reworked by an in-the-know network. (An in-the-know network not unlike those of conspiracy theorists, if not in content than in activity.) Even with ideas so dumb, the images so perfectly captured an aesthetic and structure that when the artists submitted them to far-right wing conservative Facebook groups, they circulated as freely.

Even with ideas so dumb, the images so perfectly captured an aesthetic and structure that when the artists submitted them to far-right wing conservative Facebook groups, they circulated as freely 

Yet one can’t reduce these works to sending up conspiracy theorists. Many of the Theorist images incorporate characters and narratives from pop culture, both related in tone to Trutherism (e.g., The Matrix and its conspiratorial red pill/blue pill) and completely off-topic (Brian the Dog’s death on the cartoon Family Guy). With these references, as with the King of the Hill works debuted on Dazed, Shenk et al. toys with fan fiction. What the work reveals is that what may seem like a bunch of people on the web with too much time on their hands writing fake stories about The West Wing characters is actually pretty deep collective image-making, language-making, and history-making, all against officially sanctioned narratives. Fan fiction takes characters given to us from above and makes them work for our own narrative ends: an activity not far off from the Truther impulse. 

So perhaps on this 4th of July, our Boston-area driver won’t pick up some 9/11 narrative that regurgitates myths about human and government agency (or lack thereof), but will begin writing slash and making some of her own history. Who knows? Her work might look a little bit like Shenk’s.