WASHINGTON, DC — In 2010, artist and musician Arrington de Dionyso painted a mural at Comet Ping Pong, a local pizza restaurant and music venue. Comet’s owner, James Alefantis, is a fixture of the DC art scene — both as a collector and as the head of the board of local arts nonprofit Transformer — and the restaurant’s walls feature a rotating selection of artwork. Despite being painted over nearly six years ago, the mural has now pulled de Dionyso into one of the most surreal and, for Comet Ping Pong and its staff, frightening news stories of this thoroughly bizarre year.
Since early November, dozens of individuals connected to Comet Ping Pong, as well as the owners and staff of nearby businesses, have received countless death threats and a barrage of online harassment, all inspired by a ludicrous and entirely unfounded conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. Originating from 4chan messageboards frequented by far right extremist trolls and white supremacists, the conspiracy claims that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair, John Podesta, run a child trafficking ring based at the restaurant. (In a related delusion, the same message boards claimed that Clinton and Podesta participated in Satanic rituals with Marina Abramović.) On December 4, a gunman entered Comet Ping-Pong with an assault rifle and fired several shots. Thankfully, no one was injured. He told police he had driven from North Carolina to DC to “self-investigate” the conspiracy.
Pizzagate has been cited as a prime example of fake news, but a more useful comparison might be Gamergate. While it may look, at first, like another fanatical anti-Clinton conspiracy, Pizzagate has become a queerphobic witch hunt, targeting artists, musicians, and their supporters. Outraged by the harassment to which he’s been subjected, de Dionyso — who now lives in Washington state — recently wrote about this strange saga on Medium. I spoke with him recently about his experience as a Pizzagate target.
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Blair Murphy: You’re an artist and a musician, and it seems that many of the people who have been targeted by the right wing extremist trolls and paranoid conspiracy theorists who latched onto Pizzagate are artists. Does it seem like that’s an accident?
Arrington de Dionyso: I think it’s a very deliberate assault, which will eventually be a coordinated assault on all forms of free expression. But I think they’re starting with artists who might be exploring themes of queerness or resisting dominant paradigms in their work or artists who, there may be aspects of their work that might already be inviting a certain kind of controversy. And they’re definitely running that really hard through this very fictitious link to these occult themes and reading quite a lot into it.
BM: It seems like the conspiracy probably started with people writing on a message board who knew it wasn’t real and were making it up to troll people, but it took off from there.
AD: This may not be part of this specific story, but I lost some people in the Ghost Ship fire, people who were very vital to our community here in Olympia, Washington, people who had grown up here who were living in Oakland. So there was this horrible, horrible tragedy, something that is affecting everyone I know. Within a day of that news coming out, I found YouTube videos by two different people that were not only using images of my artwork, but also using images taken from my social media sites of me, of friends, using images from a MySpace account from 2006, so really going back. And these videos were just picking out the most open-to-interpretation images and giving them very specific perspectives, analyzing me for connections to Satanism, which is completely false. They were posting pictures of an ex-girlfriend who I had barely seen in eight years or so but who looked a little bit like Chelsea Clinton, so they were trying to use it to argue that I have some intimate connection to the Clinton family. I mean, they have the same hair color. That’s not Chelsea Clinton.
So when it got to be such a bizarre violation of privacy, I started to get a little louder about this. And then, within a few days, I wrote a couple of people and I realized the extent to which some of the female musicians and performance artists have been getting very violent and sexually graphic types of messages on a daily basis, whereas the kind of targeting I was getting up to that point was really mostly about the artwork, along with some speculation about who I might be. But when I realized how deeply personal and threatening to their safety these other harassing messages had been, I felt that, at least, I had maybe less to lose by getting louder and reaching out to my community and letting people know what was going on, creating a statement that could be sent to the press and have it be something we could be a little more open about the fact that this was going on and has been happening for a while.
BM: So that’s when you decided to write the statement on Medium?
AD: I had written a statement on my personal Facebook that I also put on Instagram and a friend reached out and said, “We can edit this down a little bit and we can put it on this sharing platform that reaches a different audience.” He helped me work on some edits for it and the response has been really amazing, I think it’s been read 20,000 or 30,000 times and I only put it up a week ago.
BM: You mentioned earlier being worried that this is potentially a precursor or a sign of things to come as far as trying to quash dissenting voices. Instead of having the government tell people what they can and can’t say, you have this group of people online who are willing to essentially harass other people into silence. Do you have any thoughts on how to resist that going forward, as someone who has been trying to deal with it and speak out about it?
AD: For as much as we talk about the echo chambers and bubbles we’re living in, every time I’ve made any kind of statement about the harassment I’m experiencing, the support has been thunderously loud and unanimous. And I really do believe that we who reject this type of flagrantly immoral witch hunt and spread of misinformation, those of us who oppose that are clearly in the majority. I think no matter what happens we really have to keep reminding ourselves of that. We are in the majority.
I make art because I want it to be viewed; I make music because I want people to hear it. I want it to affect people, I want it to have an impact. And I’ve been getting nothing but support not only from my immediate networks but also from people who have seen the Medium story who are reaching out, telling me: “I’ve never heard of your art, I’ve never heard your music, but now I’m checking it out, it’s great, I want to hear more, don’t let these people stop you.” I’m getting so much affirmation and I really hope that there’s some potential for the spirit behind that affirmation to become an organizing principle for people opposed to this kind of mob censorship.