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DORTMUND, Germany — The lexicon of tyranny has a long history, but perhaps an even more complicated present. An exhibition, The Alt-Right Complex: On Right-Wing Populism Online, at the Hartware MedienKunstVerein (HMKV) in Dortmund, attempts to shine light on the verbiage of alt-right movements, including 12 projects by 16 contemporary artists that unravel the ethos, ideology, terminology and aesthetics of contemporary right-wing extremism. Crucially, the exhibition also contains a glossary of 37 entries that offer a window into the alt-right’s cryptic language, including words, symbols and phrases that members of this nebulous group use to promote an intersection of xenophobic, racist, libertarian, and ethno-nationalist ideas online.
The curator of both the exhibition and glossary, Inke Arns, admits that defining the alt-right can problematic. “The term ‘Alt-Right’ itself is controversial because it seeks to mask precisely these political beliefs; namely, Islamophobia, antisemitism, racist nationalism and contempt for the constitution,” Arns writes in the edited text and glossary accompany the exhibition (available for free online).
Entering the exhibition, one is confronted with the glossary of terms and symbols printed on the walls of a transparent, illuminated tunnel. Words like “transhumanism”, “cuckservative,” and “accelerationism” describe the vocabulary the alt-right uses to promote ideas closely linked to their extremist political beliefs.
The word “cuck,” for example, from the old French word for “cuckoo” (“cucu”), has become a go-to insult that captures toxic masculine behaviours and incel anxieties that define the alt-right today. In online porn, a cuck is short for “cuckold,” a word from the same root referring to a man who allows his female partner to have sex with someone else (often Black). The term has evolved to encapsulate a political meaning, one that now equates mainstream conservatives with effeminate values, with the term cuckservative used to denote someone who willfully absorbs conservative values with a liberal/centrist bent.
The symbiosis of words, symbols, and visual culture at the heart of alt-right discourse is sometimes difficult to discern — one case in point being the numerology of “168:1.” The number is code for the Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 people died, identified in the glossary of the exhibition. When used on message boards like 4chan and 8chan, image message boards frequented by right-wing trolls, 168:1 gives fodder to would-be extremists who support mass murder, the same macabre glorification of neo-Nazi ideology promoted by the Oklahoma City bombing’s perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh. (The numerical code also appears on some of the poster motifs for the exhibition, embroidered on the collar of a black jacket wearing mouthpiece.)
The exhibition prefaces how the alt-right became an internet subculture “dripping with irony” by making use of techniques like trolling, meme-making and pranking. Using a combination of strategic words, symbols and memes, the alt-right disseminates extreme right-wing ideology first through forums like 4chan and 8chan, then through broader platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook, which sometimes then make it onto more mainstream conservative blogs, websites, and even newsrooms like Fox News’s. “The trolls discovered that the best way to get ‘lulz’ was to employ politically incorrect rhetoric and/or subject such a position and so ‘raid’ existing online communities,” Arns writes in her exhibition text.
Entering the exhibition, walking through the illuminated glossary, 12 projects and art works look into the rise of the alt-right not only in the US, but also in Germany and Europe more broadly. One project by the artist duo DISNOVATION.ORG, by Maria Roszkowska and Nicolas Maigre, presents a large scale cartography of alt-right memes in the form of a political compass, wallpaper, and poster. The graphic interface presents about 100 symbols and figures on a four-quadrant, horizontal and vertical axis divided between authoritarian and libertarian, economic-right and economic-left. Entitled Online Culture Wars (2018-1019), the work graphically interprets how brands, celebrities, and symbols become linked along an ideological spectrum.
Alongside the political compass, a hacked version of the immensely popular board game, Life, by the artist Simon Denny, offers a speculative post-national future in which colonies at sea and in space vie for supremacy on a planet in which the welfare state has collapsed. The goals of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, Peter Thiel, which the exhibition leans on heavily, include the idea that transhumanism mixed with temporary libertarian autonomous zones can facilitate a future society in which the individual reigns supreme. In Denny’s apocryphal board game, Game of Life: Collective vs Individual Rules (2017), the end-game of Theil and others like him are inscribed into the rules itself, offering a speculative scenario in which players are tasked with disposing of nation states via “Cloud Lords” who utilize tools like “deregulation”, “optimism” and “R&D” (research and development) to fight against “unadaptable monsters” like “legal systems beyond the expiry date”, “transparency”, “democracy” and “fair elections.”
In a work by the Canadian video artist Dominic Gagnon, a montage of censored amateur videos from YouTube is interspersed with footage of conspiracy theorists known as “preppers,” people who live in perpetual fear of an eventual doomsday scenario. Like Peter Thiel, preppers project a fundamental mistrust of the current political and social system. Informed by an intense wave of paranoia, rage, and suppressed anxieties, preppers tend to espouse views deeply critical of migrants and a fundamental distrust in mainstream narratives, using these ideas to give fodder to post-apocalyptic near future scenarios in which only the rich will survive.
In a dual-channel video work by the Hungarian artist Szabolcs KissPál, From Fake Mountains to Faith (Hungarian Trilogy) (2016), the focus shifts beyond preppers to understand how grand narratives and national symbols of authoritarianism intersect. Looking into his native Hungary, KissPál posits how quickly democratic societies can devolve into illiberal democracies, often under strong-man leaders, such as Hungary’s current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The docu-fiction brings to light an imagined scenario involving a museum that seeks to counter the ideological foundation of race and nation. It deconstructs how forms of ethno-nationalism manifest in supposedly neutral institutions, but also how this becomes a romantic myth that supports political references in support of the nation state, and with it forms of political belonging and social communities therein.
Not far from these ideas, a project by Vanja Smiljanić examines how religion and nationalism are used to reinforce one another based on a comparative investigation into the internet-based movement of the Cosmic People and the Flag Nation Society, a Christian community that bases its ideology around allegiance to an ominous flag. Taking up the mantle of a Minister of the Cosmic People for the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, Portugal and the former Portuguese colonies, the lecture performance and documentation offers a buoyant and timely criticism responding to dangers of worship, albeit here in a dystopian, cyber-ruled world.
In Jonas Staal’s 10-channel video installation Steve Bannon: A Propaganda Retrospective (visual ecology) (2018), the artist presents a “visual encyclopedia” of visual tropes taken from Banon’s work as a Hollywood filmmaker. The work consists of 10 separate screens Staal filmed and edited between 2014-2018. In them, we see how the cacophony of right-wing ideology is filtered from fringe groups and message boards all the way up to the mainstream media. It narrows in on Steve Bannon, the veritable architect and propagainst-in-chief of US President Donald Trump’s successful campaign in 2016, who prior to that served as executive chairman of Breitbart News. Staal’s work offers a timely and potent examination of Bannon’s ideology through the prism of film and cinematic editing and references, it is very Eisenstein or Michael Moore-esque, with the end result being scenes that employ visual references to themes and mythologies long since debunked. One of these themes involves the false and often cited narrative of the triumph and former golden age of Western white civilization. Here, we encounter how Trump’s problematic narrative feeds into alt-right groups who often attempt to prolongate a false ancient mythology in order to reinforce ethno-nationalist and xenophobic world views today. (The pseudo-historiography of white erasure and Western civilization has been debunked numerous times, including in the annals of Hyperallergic by the Classicist scholar Dr. Sarah Bond, whose recent article “The Origins of White Supremacists’ Fear of Replacement” argues that the “fear of being replaced can be traced to the French far right, but racist fears regarding supposed White genocide, and invasion by varied ethnic groups, go back centuries”). In Staal’s work, we encounter how Bannon’s scripted ideological narrative continues to obfuscate the truth, with the purpose of furthering a highly divisive political ideology.
Leaving the exhibition, I was reminded of the unnerving parallels between the alt-right online and in real life. 8chan, the image and message board modelled after 4chan, has recently been in the news after the revelation that the El Paso shooter used the forum to post his far-right manifesto moments before his killing spree, which marks the third time a right-wing mass shooter has posted plans and/or manifesto on the site. Hence, the title of the exhibition, The Alt-Right Complex, is an exhibition that draws nuanced parallels between hateful ideology and imagery online, bearing in mind the psychological minefield that transcends the internet and enters into mainstream consciousness and into real life political events.
The Alt-Right Complex: On Right-Wing Populism Online continues at HMKV Dortmund until September 22, 2019.