Interview with Joey Holder
Sam Mercer is a producer of the digital programme at The Photographer's Gallery.Read full Bio
In February 2017, Joey Holder was commissioned to create a new work for The Photographers' Gallery Media Wall as part of Conspiracy Week. In Selachimorpha, Holder worked with found and manipulated images, videos and text, speculating on the role of misinformation, alternative forms of knowledge production and what is lurking in the deep sea, deep space and the dark web.
In Selachimorpha, you are using, amongst other things, images of sharks being manipulated with implants, footage of a presumed UFO captured in the film Jaws and a morphing Pepe the frog. What interests you in the confusion between the fictional and the real?
‘Selachimorpha’, the film I produced for The Photographers' Gallery, morphs between factual and fictional creatures, symbols and memes to reflect on our continual shifting beliefs. It contains a clip from the film 'Jaws' where a shooting star can be clearly seen in the sky behind the hero Roy Schneider. Certain internet commentary has suggested that this star is actually a UFO, as it can't be easily explained or recognised due to the large red trajectory that appears in a trail behind it.
For me the sighting of it in this particular film is of some poignancy. Like space, the ocean is a largely unexplored territory, and therefore a rich breeding ground for myths and conspiracies. Mistakes about marine life have ranged from inaccurate assumptions about the behaviour of known species to fanciful depictions of animals that "might" exist.
The internet is awash with fake news and campaigns, which eschew the distinctions between fact and fiction, “real” and “fake.” It has recently been suggested that we are fully ensconced in a -so called- “post-truth” world. What has happened in politics recently is something which the world’s media failed to predict. This article explains better than I can how tangible beliefs are / can be, and how, for instance, memes can be used to turn opinion and mutate into real world abominations.
Your work was exhibited on the The Photographers' Gallery Media Wall as part of our season on conspiracy theory. How do you approach processes of verification and validation that these ideas call upon?
All ideas are subject to change and transformation - what we believe in, can transform. For that reason, in my practice they can be shaped and constructed. I reflect upon this mutating reality, avoiding simple identification and comforting classification. People are now more acutely aware of the way in which ideas can transform and mutate through the (inter)net, and have their own “life”, so to speak. I personally think of the internet itself as a complex entity, like a living organism, expanding and contracting. Its territories are as far-reaching as they are controlled.
How does this relate to your previous work - were you always interested in these online narratives? (I’m thinking specifically of your making your external hard drive available online and Ophiuchus)
In my previous work ‘Ophiux’ I explored conspiracies within the medical world - I created a speculative pharmaceutical brand, eschewing the distinctions between what these companies claim they can do and what they actually do. I often take ‘scientific fact’ as a starting point (fact(s?) often being much stranger than fiction) and dramatise it so that it is portrayed as a fiction. Ophiuchus was heavily influenced by the book: ‘The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge’ a 1998 non-fiction book by Jeremy Narby which investigated the connections between shamanism and molecular biology.
Real time news reporting, bots on social media and the use of memes have in recent years all been attributed to putting a spell on people and affecting their perception of the world. How do you respond to this representation, and what is the role of network culture in spreading or resisting these narratives?
I am interested in examining the nature of belief in today’s climate and particularly how belief can be 'manufactured' online. We live in a time of ‘hyperpolarisation’ where we think that people with different political or religious beliefs live in different worlds. Our beliefs are reaffirmed in social media echo chambers whereby abstract manipulation occurs through background algorithmic processes, pulling us further into rabbit holes and making atomised groups. These times of predicted and customised media have resulted in a landscape rife with conspiracy theories -if you want to believe something you just type it into google to have it confirmed and connect the dots.
The following talk by artist Daniel Keller explains more on the topic. As the description on the talk's YouTube page summarises:
"The internet has become an ideal medium for the dissemination of unfounded conspiracies and disinformation and the reinforcement of beliefs and biases which has culminated in a fractured reality that threatens democracy itself".
The rise of the alt-right demonstrates the dangerous ideologies which can arise within this digital landscape. As my friend and collaborator Benjamin Orlow wrote in a recent email discussion we had: "The alt right uses an indiscriminate appropriation in their aesthetics, meaning they mix and match anything. Even their own critique can be screenshotted and re-posted and instantly work in their favour. Same goes for symbols, for an instance the trash pigeon on Facebook started as a left alternative to Pepe but was quickly overtaken. This approach makes their output fast and containing an impossibly large amount of information and references that becomes seductive and baffling but mainly it is also easy to reproduce (ie. murdoch murdoch or 4chan). The left is using the exact opposite strategy, by trying to ban expressions, imagery and opinions and demand certain behavior and ideals to be upheld by everyone. This makes it very hard to manoeuvre, as you become slow, frustrated and unappealing to the general audience. The approach of banning incorrectness only works in theory as in practice it is impossible to ban expressions and enforce it".
Some of the creators of alt-right memes have claimed to carry out 'Meme Magic', a term used to describe the hypothetical power of sorcery and voodoo, that can transcend the realm of cyberspace and result in real life consequences. ‘Meme Magic’ is closely related to ‘Chaos Magic’ whereby practitioners believe that a computer is the central tool for connecting followers, building virtual knowledge libraries and used in the simulation of the online ritual environment.
I am currently in the early stages of planning a new work which will investigate the shifting complexities of beliefs and conspiracies online. I plan to collaborate with investigative journalists and travel to interview different groups of people who are the makers of online fictions, creating the seeds which are then taken up by the masses.
The underlying focus of the film will be about ‘Synchromysticism’: the drawing of connections in modern culture (movies, music lyrics, historical happenings and esoteric knowledge). I’m interested in finding connections that could be coming / emerge? from the "collective unconscious mind" as well as between occult knowledge (i.e. esoteric fraternities, cults and secret rituals), politics and mass media. It will also touch upon 'cybersectarianism': a phenomenon of new religious movements and other groups using the Internet for text distribution, recruitment, and information sharing which exists in countries like China where the internet is heavily controlled by the government. The film will operate on both a micro and macro level, illustrating the intricate patterns which form our networked realities, while emphasising the flexibility of belief and whether people are able to consciously choose their beliefs.