Where someone said they saw some smoke, there very well may be no fire.
Even the most banal details in film and TV can, and sometimes will, be computer generated: crowds, backgrounds, animals, weather… Sigourney Weaver apparently objected to smoking for the filming of Avatar so director James Cameron acquiesced and agreed that she could fake it and they would add cgi smoke in post-production. Unless you are looking out for these sorts of low-impact effects they can slip right by, however, if you start paying closer attention, all manner of things will start to look strange. These abnormalities are most often apparent in immaterial things, the physics or lighting. When this is the case with so much of what we see on screen; hundreds of tiny inconsequential details that we sense are just the slightest bit unreal – even if it is only recognised at an unconscious level – could that cause our fundamental trust in reality to waver… just slightly?
On the 4th December 2016 a man walked into a Washington DC restaurant crowded with families, he was armed with a pistol and an assault rifle. The 28-year-old gunman was there, he said, to investigate some allegations that the pizzeria was at the heart of a child sex trafficking ring, which included Barak Obama, Bill and Hilary Clinton, and the performance artist Marina Abramović. His actions were the result of a huge spiralling fake news story known as Pizzagate, which was dreamt up and fleshed out primarily on Reddit by a right wing ‘subreddit’ named The_Donald. This forum is largely populated by a group of people who, like Donald Trump, fear the media is untrustworthy. The_Donald’s members talk about 'seeing reality as it really is' and, ironically enough for a group which espouses such a attachment to reality, as having taken The Red Pill.
Just a few years ago this talk would have been written off as post-Matrix fanboy solipsism but more recently it is actually gaining traction within futurists, philosophers and scientists alike, much to the delight of the pill poppers. The Pizzagate conspiracy continues onwards in this vein of constructed reality: for example, the fact that the gunman Edgar Maddison Welch has an IMDB listing as an actor, fuelled the theory that he was hired by someone to create a false flag event designed to discredit all the theorists as violent extremists. This sort of thinking is the result of the theorists’ relentless focus solely on their tiny corner of the world; their ceaseless suspicion that the media has a secret agenda, one from which they are excluded. Strangely, they seem to have very little concern for the physical world around them, for real, lived political and social problems – it is almost as if they feel these things aren’t relevant to them. Moreover, their status as primarily straight, white, Western men does not stop them from identifying as politically and socially oppressed, despite living in an empirically racist and patriarchal society.
The Pizzagate narrative started with a hacked email account belonging to John Podesta, the chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Whilst in this role, Podesta fell for a phishing scam and his email account was breached. In one of the resulting leaked emails Podesta's brother, the art collector Tony Podesta, forwarded John an email from the artist Marina Abramović, which read; “I am so looking forward to the spirit cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you will be able to let me know if your brother is joining? All my love Marina.” A quick Google image search of Marina Abramović, leads us to a picture which looks, at a glance, as though Abramović is wearing an inverted cross.
I can see how this little visual slip happens, how the white of the cross on her chest merges with the gold piece that binds it to the choker, or perhaps there is a visual echo of some other regime? Whether I would have thought these things without being primed about evil groups and hidden symbols, I can’t tell. And would I have seen it more accurately if I wasn’t looking at the picture on my phone, slightly surreptitiously when I was supposed to be doing something else? I’m guessing though that this is also how it was viewed by many others, on a small smudged screen while half-succumbing to a little flare of imagination. The story jumps off from this mis-recognised image in a big way: Abramović’s spirit cooking dinner is obviously some sort of satanic ritual for the liberal elite.
Elsewhere in Podesta’s hacked emails a man named James Alefantis congratulates Podesta on giving a good speech at a fund raising event ending his message saying “my only regret is that I didn't get to make you a nice pizza, when can I?” To most people this message might appear to be completely innocent, but theorists on 4chan and Reddit postulated that ‘pizza’ did not reference the Italian bread based foodstuff, but was in fact part of a secret code. Influenced by a recent FBI report, which argued that on web-forums paedophiles use the abbreviation c.p. or words beginning with c and p to refer to child pornography, the 4Channers took ‘pizza’, jumped to ‘cheese pizza’ and well, 2+2=145. I should mention here that Alefantis owns the ‘Comet Ping Pong’ pizzeria in Washington D.C. This narrative may seem to be full of insanely far-fetched leaps but nonetheless it inspired a real person to walk into a real restaurant, with a real loaded gun, in order to “self-investigate” the case.
Networks such as forums, message boards or discussion sites have, like other forms of online publishing become one part in the development of iterative journalism; the publication of stories piece by piece, as they happen. It is an exciting, visceral development in the art of reportage. Images are a vital part of this system primarily because of their speed, both in production and reception, but their implementation in this context is highly conservative and problematic. The photograph here once again comes pre-packaged with that idea of old, that it is a source of truth. The photographic medium is proposed as transparent; it is used not for the photograph itself, but only what the image depicts. In this environment, the picture is utilised almost exclusively as a tool to support a statement, to illustrate; it simply says x was here, this is what x looked like. In this way, it is the perfect tool for any theorist trying to win over a public; we make and see and ignore so many images today that they have become at once absolute and indifferent, all equally staged yet totally believable. For the theorist, the beauty of images is that they have the power to become simultaneously a source of proof and doubt. Look again, don’t you see that? There it is. Gone.
Today, our filter bubbles prescribe our news feeds; the information we see and our reaction to it creates our virtual communities and our lived experiences. Click chasing, ad revenue based program architectures have given us the self-perpetuating cycle of “other people like you like this”, no matter what “this” is. One downside of the speed of iterative journalism in combination with community-approval streaming algorithms, is that in the rush to be the first to publish, people don’t take the time to fact check, and then, before you know it… ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.’ Fake news, post truths and alternative facts fan the smoke that has no fire, until one starts.
The Pizzagate conspiracy theory started with some quite banal observations; a couple of emails, some logos, the odd photograph, all of which really did exist. These facts were then interpreted, improvised and imagined around until, by the time it was fully fleshed out, the story had become almost entirely fictional. The tall tale’s birthplace in truth gave it a gateway from a community’s imagination back into reality. However, by the time it returned to the world the source material was totally invisible, surrounded as it was by a fantastical new construction. In principle at least, this sort of visionary inventiveness could be a great thing, but in this case a group’s paranoia, anger and disenfranchisement produced a grotesque delusion. It was in the end an oxymoronic case of mass hysteria authored with the spirit of The X File’s “Trust No One”.
The Pizzagate theorists have totally lost trust in the media and those who manage the society we live in; the politicians and government agencies. Instead, they choose to believe only the people inside the bounds of their own tiny comfortable, but increasingly paranoid community. They are a group of people who are almost exactly alike, they share a language, a culture and real estate, albeit virtual. Anything which lays outside the confines of their world doesn’t concern them at all, until it looks like it might encroach on their space in even the slightest way; even the vaguest hint of an approach is viewed as a threat to them and their existence. The theorists’ beliefs are a result of the systems we all agreed to. We signed up, paid for and built this society every time we ticked that little box without reading exactly what it was we were getting into. As recent events show the theorists opinions can affect our world just as much as we can affect theirs, but hopefully, right now, we are lucky enough to not feel quite as scared and isolated and delusional as they are. For the moment. We need to change the systems we exist within if we want to live as a more reasonable society, with codes we think are fair and just. We don’t have to of course, everything is just fine, it is just a few crazies, right? Their opinions won’t harm me.
Suggested Citation:Conroy, D. (2017) 'Where someone said they saw some smoke, there very well may be no fire.', The Photographers’ Gallery: Unthinking Photography. Available at: https://unthinking.photography/articles/when-someone-said-they-saw-some-smoke-there-very-well-may-be-no-fire