Total Disinformation Awareness is an exhibition about information: its proliferation and concealment in a computerized age. It’s also about a distinctly American shared mythos born out of 9.11, beneath the glare of then-tube, now-digital TVs.
The duo behind the exhibition, Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins, fills LaunchProjects’ domestic-looking space with a gamut of media and styles, and a nod toward the fear-based power structures that govern the New World.
To paraphrase historian Michel Foucault’s treatises on power, force is most effective when it effaces a considerable part of itself, that is, when its impact isn’t noticeable to those at whom it’s directed. Insidious power structures—racial stereotypes, class consciousness, inferiority complexes—enforce themselves quite well and quite cheaply.
The same goes for art that criticizes those forces: Subtle is better.
Total Disinformation Awareness refers to a now-better-named government initiative to compile personal data ostensibly to stave off terrorism. The exhibition examines the multitudinous ways in which freedoms of information have been manipulated, but it errs on the sensationalist side.
A series of burnt books—two ink-jet on archival paper, one an installation of acrylic-coated burnt books sizzling over a simulated fire—incites justified concerns. After all, it wasn’t long ago when a preacher from Florida threatened to burn Korans and stop religious freedom in New York, nor since Fahrenheit 451 raised our collective childhood hackles. But, in America, people are unlikely to encounter censorship via book-burning, so this prospect is more hyperbole. It’s a distraction from real freedoms stolen in more pressing, but quieter, ways.
But on TV screens everywhere, volume is king.
Globular plastic-foam evildoers—replete with piercing, evil red eyes—beam their furtive laser sights on the American dream. In “Cave with Evildoer (after Magritte),” a decidedly fecal structure attached to LaunchProjects’ fireplace hides one of these weapons of mass destruction. Nearby, a small yurt-like structure, “Cave,” recalls the nauseous narrative of terrorists absconding from American forces. In the next room, an electronic work of two googly eyes, with the help of a security camera, follows guests around the space ($20,000 is a lot to pay for fake spying). Across the gallery, the infamous image of the Munich massacre terrorist on a balcony is rendered in India ink while, on the same wall, a fake newspaper headline involving homosexual prostitution finds George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan complicit.
The work is best when it’s less obtuse. Perhaps the most profound piece is “Erased Redacted.” The graphite-on-paper work needs only suggest the white-backed text and blacked-out areas of a redacted document, and an entire government’s ills come to mind. The redacted document has saturated our system of signs and signifiers, and is now on par with Angelina Jolie’s lips.
Two pixelated renditions of artist Frank Stella’s works are impressive examples of how we think of representation. The simulacrum has become the thing itself, only separated by a series of tubes. Similarly, “Bit Laden,” a work of India ink on Carson paper, shows only a blur of Osama Bin Laden’s face and the person is readily apparent. Would we have ever been spared the man’s face? Has it looked so pixelated all along?
These works are all products, true or not, of the collective ennui of our pop-culture lives. The exhibition points out the sheer mass of information we have been fed. We’ve been lied to, oversaturated and desensitized. But does admitting our powerlessness make it so?