The Jogging is an art Tumblr that used to predominantly feature clean, punny images like this:
But a few months ago, it began to be flooded with content along these lines:
At first I took these as an ironic homage to and appropriation of the naive and clumsy design aesthetic and shock tactics of conspiracy-theory propaganda. It seemed too easy a target, in a way, too obvious to conflate Geocities/MSPaint/chain-email-style bad design with offensively racist right-wing paranoia motifs and make fun of them both. It didn’t feel deadpan enough; the irony wasn’t unstable enough. There was no mistaking the mockery, so it just felt smug to laugh at them. It seemed too obvious what buttons were being pushed.
But a chapter on conspiracy theory in media scholar Mark Andrejevic’s recent book Infoglut changed my hermeneutic for these images. My epiphany, for what it’s worth, came when I read this: “conspiracy theory, despite its infinite productivity, remains a failure of the imagination that corresponds to an inability to think, in the current instance, outside the horizons of capitalism.”
How does one productively think about the inability to think? How do you imaginatively confront the apparent waning of imagination that the conditions of artistic production online tends to instigate, where the circulation of an image begins to trump its content, and serial production militates against patiently crafted masterworks? Can art transcend capitalist horizons or can you only make capitalism an artform? Brad Troemel, one of the Jogging’s contributors, has been preoccupied with these ideas for a while (as in this essay about “accidental audiences” and this one about “athletic aesthetics“); the conspiratorial turn makes better sense in their context. The images try to simultaneously capture the impossible demands of infinite productivity, for which conspiracy theorizing is an analogue, along with a critique of the consequences of such demands — namely a kind of elitist apathy, a knowing cynicism that expedites capitalism’s flow of goods (artistic or otherwise).
What is any Tumblr about if not “infinite productivity”? Andrejevic quotes Kathleen Stewart, who argued that “The internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing and no place.” Like appropriative art, conspiracy theories are fundamentally elastic and must continue to absorb new materials, no matter how outlandish or unlikely, to survive. They are exponentially generative, because anything can be connected. Conspiracy theories are endless scrolls, forging links with spurious logic, sometimes a matter of sheer contiguity. The more improbable a juxtaposition, the more “true” it can seem in the context of conspiracy theory, or the “better” it is in appropriative art.
Conspiracy theories are true only insofar as they circulate, much like certain species of net art are “valid,” are “working,” only insofar as they are shared. The guarantee of their substantiveness is in the fact that they are spreading; in a sense what all conspiracy theories “prove” is their own ability to attract believers. They give people an insiders club to which they can belong. Like esoteric artworks, they constitute pseudo-savvy audiences.
The gist of the “accidental audience” idea is that ironic art images would escape their context on Tumblr and be reblogged in non-art-world spaces and be met with a much more spontaneous and potentially richer appreciation. For these audiences, the decontextualized yet networked images meet Jodi Dean’s definition of a conspiracy theory: “things are not as they seem and everything is connected.” For this group, art in general is little more than a product of a conspiracy of elites who all pretend that incomprehensible memes and effortlessly made objects and childlike Twombly-esque doodles have real value.
The accidental audiences, broadcasting their reactions in Tumblr, in some way become the “content” of the art for the original art-world audience, who can then use Tumblr to track their fate in the wild. It makes naive audiences the content for sophisticated audiences, restratifying what the allegedly democratizing space of the internet might otherwise have threatened to collapse.
It may seem that the intent of the conspiracy images is to stage the frisson of “accidental audience” for the typical savvy contemporary art consumer. They become the “accidental audience” for crude images that clearly aren’t meant to appease their sophisticated eye and finely tuned appreciation for irony at the level of technique and concept. I felt a little of that in thinking the images weren’t blank enough, weren’t ambiguous enough. But the readiness with which I wanted to dismiss the conspiracy images is in some senses the medium they are working in — the sense of superiority to the level of content that they invite the viewer to assume. The exasperation with “facts” within the images corresponds with the exasperation of the viewer scrolling past them: God, okay, I get it!
This exasperation stems from a need to consume rapidly. An aesthetics of speed — the governing mode of artistic consumption online — converges on the shallow epistemology of conspiratorial thinking, which plays “fast and loose” with facts and details and efficiently establishes an affective atmosphere even before you have a chance to think about how you feel. Andrejevic associates this climate of “affective facts” with a right-wing strategy of post-truth politics, a “vernacular postmodernism” that takes the idea that all representations of reality come with a biased point of view and uses that to make distinguishing between competing claims impossible. All that’s left is whether you “feel” something is true, since no other explanation for reality can be credible.
You could say something similar about artistic taste, which is often mystified in terms of an affective feeling that confirms the “greatness” or “interestingness” of some works and dismisses others without any need to articulate an explanation. Mystifying taste protects us from thinking about the elitism built into our snap judgments; it constitutes a conspiracy of silence about art-consumer snobbery. It keeps such consumers from examining the basis for their feelings of aesthetic superiority and protects them from critique. It may be that art consumption can only occur from within such a smug cocoon, which provides the assurance that keeps consumers from being overwhelmed with evaluative demands and potential exposures of ignorance. It protects them from being embarrassed by the question, “What do you like about this?”
The Jogging’s conspiracy images seem to want to override this cocoon, or at least make it more palpable to those ensconced within it. They foreground the conspiratorial affective climate that most art consumers are always operating within without knowing it, while attempting new strategies for overwhelming audiences, exploding the cocoon. Your aesthetics are no less crude than the conspiratorial logic in these images. They are a trap. They force you to recognize that if you are in on the joke, the joke is on you.