Media All the Way Down: Art and Conspiracy at the Met Breuer

CONSPIRACIES RESIST DESCRIPTION. Should one write about them with curious dispassion, and risk reducing them to a cheap Wunderkammer of fringe ideas, or should one follow each strand in a web of nested citations and risk becoming tangled in tedious pedantry? Thankfully, the Met Breuer’s recent exhibit, Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, curated by Douglas Eklund and Ian Alteveer, offers an alternative, one that will hopefully bring new energy to the tired discussions about a broad range of American conspiracies. As the curators explain in their handsome and deeply researched exhibition catalog, they deliberately avoided the term “conspiracy theory,” which seemed reductive and dismissive (famously, the CIA encouraged operatives to use the term in their quiet campaign against alternative explanations of JFK’s assassination). “Theory,” with its etymological root in spectatorship, is not their aim. Instead, the exhibit does something far more compelling: it dramatizes conspiracies — those real, imagined, and those somewhere in between — showing a world full of uncanny images and unreliable narrators, of details that always seem to recede and connections that always seem to expand, of facts that are so shaky one can only grasp them when falling. Here, ideas are constantly moving toward conclusions, asymptotically.

Some of the exhibit’s most striking works are Mark Lombardi’s baroque mappings of shadowy international dealings, including the piece he considered his “ur-drawing,” the BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972–91 (4th Version). It charts a constellation of banks that facilitated fraud and money laundering, with connections to the CIA, drug cartels, terrorist groups, oil magnates, and politicians. Walking along the nearly 12-foot-long diagram — with its bewildering lines between obscure security firms and mostly unfamiliar names — is as impressive as it is bewildering. Similar to looking over a vast mountain range, it is easy to marvel at its sublimity yet awfully difficult to scale each craggy slope.

This question of scale is at the heart of Lombardi’s work, which shows an ambivalence toward the possibility of representing conspiracy at all. On the one hand, Lombardi regularly updated his charts, issuing new editions that sprawled ever further along gallery walls, approaching a more complete record in each iteration. Yet at the same time, his work pulls back, insisting on a minimalist rendering that withholds much more than it offers. (He had uncovered far more evidence, which he detailed on index cards currently held at the Whitney.) This tension creates the sense that some grand conclusion is just about to click into place. Lombardi offers a key on the side of the maps, explaining the six different types of lines and their meanings, but these meanings are hopelessly vague. The most frequent connection on his map is “some type of influence or control”; the next is “flow of money, loans, or credit.” Does this influence move along personal relationships, political control, financial backing? He doesn’t explain.

Lombardi offers a hint, however, in the broad arcs that connect each node. He drafted them from a French curve, a paisley-shaped tool derived from the Euler spiral, in which the curvature increases linearly with arc length. Seen only at the widest bend, Lombardi’s connections seem like sections of a circle, but keep tracing it with your imagination, and you will find yourself continuously spiraling inward, turning around the central point, getting closer with each turn, but never actually reaching it. Like gravity, its force is felt, but it can never be grasped.

Nor could Lombardi ever complete his maps. There will always be a new connection, a new detail, a new piece of information to add. He understood that any attempt to capture these relations fully would be as quixotic as making a map the size of the country it charted. Lewis Carroll, in his novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, imagined such a cartographic monster. The farmers protested unfurling such an enormous map, because it “would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!” Perhaps this is what Mike Kelley was thinking when he painted Government Operations, also on display at the exhibit, which looks like Lombardi’s work unbound — follow every lead, include every detail, continue every infinite arc, and you might get something like this stormy tangle of black lines with no evident meaning or shape. If Lombardi’s map recalls a gentle cumulus cloud at a distance, Kelley’s is a dark thunderhead threatening to blot out the landscape.

Rather than drawing clouds, Hans Haacke preferred to make them. Before his incisive pieces that, like Lombardi, blurred the distinction between investigation and art, he worked with natural phenomena. Well known for his Condensation Cube, in which water in a clear acrylic cube would condense the relationship between the public and the museum in the form of droplets, he became increasingly interested in systems theory and cybernetics, in the way that a vast number of variables can all concatenate into one self-regulating system. As he became more political during the 1960s, he turned his attention from natural to political systems. If temperature and humidity could conspire to create clouds of unpredictable yet stable shapes, so too could money, corporations, and elite networks.

Through public records kept by the city clerk, Haacke was able to trace the various shell companies that lawyers had erected to hide a vast world of shady financial transactions. From these documents, he produced Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971. To the left, he shows a tall map of Manhattan with markers that reveal the distribution of Goldman and DiLorenzo’s buildings; to the right, running horizontally, he offers a key listing the details of each building: its address, square footage, price, the name of the shell company that owns it, illustrated with a small image of each building — shops, tenements, skyscrapers. It is one network among many, one variable contributing to the greater system of political and economic power in the city. Significantly, however, it is also only a map of fronts: shell companies and building facades. Architects and lawyers both know well how to build barriers, and Haacke does little to get behind them. Yet just as one need not know the inner workings of each droplet to study larger weather patterns, one need not dig into the central core of each company to study the broader ecology of power in the city. Haacke’s interest in cybernetics is important here — it is a discipline that works with black boxes, discovering new truths through the gestalt of interaction rather than the atomism of reduction. Cybernetics, much like conspiracy, can trace relationships without understanding each node. Both have learned to work with and through the unknown.

The controversy around Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings certainly suggests that Haacke framed information that wasn’t meant to be framed. Before it was scheduled to premiere at the Guggenheim, the museum’s director, Thomas Messer, canceled that show and fired the curator. Crossing power brokers and rich patrons was apparently too serious a taboo. The censorship was simply the system maintaining stability; Haacke could hardly have done better at exposing the conspiracy of power. Indeed, his work itself became understood as a conspiracy of sorts. Haacke referred to these real time systems as “double agents”; Thomas Messer called them “an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism.” For both, this installation about facades was also about breaking down facades, threatening the museum from within.

Adjacent to Haacke’s work, Sarah Charlesworth’s April 21, 1978 similarly sounds the depths of surfaces. In March 1978, Aldo Moro, Italy’s former prime minister, was kidnapped by the Red Brigades. On April 19, the newspaper La Repubblica ran a front-page headline, “Moro Assassinato?” He hadn’t been killed (yet), and with mordant wit the Brigades quickly released a photo of him holding the paper that had hinted at his death. The following day, this image appeared in newspapers around the world. Charlesworth collected 20 of them at the UN Bookstore in New York and made copies without any text, only the masthead and photographs. They are displayed serially so that the viewer, looking at each new paper, watches Aldo Moro migrating across the world and across the page, as in The New York Times, where he is shrunken to a small corner beside Saul Bellow and overwhelmed by a looming photograph of L. Patrick Gray as he was leaving court during the Watergate trials. The framed images culminate with a Soviet newspaper that printed photographs of two people reading the second La Repubblica, which contains the image of Moro holding the previous La Repubblica. The mise en abyme — the papers looking at papers — constitutes the proof of life. This is how facts are made. It’s media all the way down.

Each of these artists embraced ambiguity and opacity: Lombardi’s unclear relations, Haacke’s shell companies, Charlesworth’s wordless newspapers. The minimalism within museums looks strikingly similar to censorship within governments; both the artist and the bureaucrat are adept at quietly reframing evidence, manipulating attention, and embellishing details. Each has harnessed the sly power of occlusion. This uncanny mirroring between those who commit conspiracy and those who seek to uncover it ripples throughout the history of the postwar United States. The most influential essay on the subject, Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” notes this dynamic: “A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy.” The Ku Klux Klan donned similar ceremonial robes as the Catholics they despised; the John Birch Society constructed conspiratorial cells similar to the communists they imagined everywhere. So too with artists and conspirators. To uncover conspiracy, it seems, is in part to cover it up.

Or to fabricate it. A surprising number of postwar conspiracies, including the first reports of a “flying saucer,” were born on the pages of pulp magazines published by the eccentric visionary, Ray Palmer. The Met Breuer’s exhibit displays one issue of Palmer’s Amazing Stories, which during the late 1940s published a widely read series of tales known as the Shaver Mystery, the ordeals and visions of Richard Shaver, a Pennsylvania welder who was kidnapped by subterranean demons for several years. Shaver had originally written Palmer a letter, and the publisher went on to co-write dozens of tales about the “Deros,” sadistic creatures that secretly tormented humanity. Shaver appears to have had no doubt about their existence, but his stories’ position beside kitschy space operas and weird science fiction suggests their veracity was on unsteady ground. The cover art of the magazines certainly embraced its fantastical elements: the issue at the exhibit features a story called “Gods of Venus,” with an illustration of a scantily clad woman, gun in hand, swinging on a rope through a cavern of mysterious glass spheres. In the inaugural story of the Mysteries, heavily rewritten by the wily Palmer, this paradoxical truth was explicit: “[I]t is tragic that the only way I can tell my story is in the guise of fiction.” Like an esoteric text, the hidden truth was to be found in the crevices between reality, imagination, and interpretation.

Fiction could also work like Haacke’s Condensation Cube, making visible conspiratorial elements that were ubiquitous yet diffuse. In 1967, a number of passengers riding New York City’s subway stumbled upon a grim document. Written in the formal style of a government memo, it predicted an imminent race war: “When that emergency comes, we must expect the total involvement of all 22 million members of the Minority, men, women, and children, for once this project is launched, its goal is to terminate once and for all, the Minority threat to the whole of the American society, and indeed, the Free World.” The report, called the King Alfred Plan (it appears in the exhibit pasted onto Gerald William’s spectacular 1969–’71 painting Wake Up), outlined a blueprint for suppressing the black population and interning them in concentration camps around the country. It had, in fact, been written by John A. Williams as part of his novel about persecuted black authors, The Man Who Cried I Am. Williams had earlier worked at a PR firm, and he knew well how to capture an audience’s attention. After he scattered the pamphlets on the subway, the fiction began to spread, becoming as real as the life of Aldo Moro. Indeed, as Merve Emre argued in The New Yorker, it hardly mattered that the Plan was technically fiction. To many African Americans, it contained a truth that had nothing to do with its origin. For black America, Shaver’s Deros were all too real: they came in the form of police officers, politicians, businessmen, and city planners.

The King Alfred Plan succeeded because of the widespread assumption that the government could have committed these machinations to paper. Indeed, all the artwork here shares a faith in traces — that more often than not, people can, if they look long enough, or search hard enough, find some evidence of a conspiracy. This made good sense in the United States during the second half of the 20th century, which witnessed an exponential growth in record keeping, be it governmental, scientific, or financial. Yet it seems we may be entering an era when conspiracies will no longer leave even the faintest trace — more than that, an era when it will be impossible to imagine what a trace might look like. As self-learning machines continue to process incomprehensibly large pools of data, even those engineers responsible have no idea why programs behave the way they do. All the conspiracies at this exhibit — of money, power, media, and racism — will no doubt endure in new forms, but many of the conspirators will vanish. There will be no way to represent the complex digital processes wending around us, no way to know what an algorithm was “thinking” or “intending.” Someday soon, we may find ourselves yearning for this earlier era of conspiracy, when one could at least believe there was a point toward which the spiral of knowledge could twist.


Carmine Grimaldi is a writer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Intercept, Representations, and Filmmaker Magazine, and he is currently an A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.