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Art & Design 16/03/2017

Meet the artists who hijack the news

Artists have a long history of creating outlandish stunts to capture our attention, but what happens when those stunts make us question our ability tell fact from fiction? How Much Of This Is Fact, at FACT in Liverpool explores how artists have deceived the media to create their own stories.

Featuring known hoaxers such as the Yes Men, !Mediengruppe Bitnik (the Swiss artist duo responsible for a bot buying illegal drugs on the dark net), and a new commission by Iranian-American artist Morehshin Allahyari, the exhibition charts the legacy of media pirates associated with tactical media.

The term was first used in the mid-90s to cover a new wave of work that manipulated the media through hit-and-run style projects, usually in the style of a culture jam or guerrilla campaign.

David Garcia, co-curator of the exhibition, is also one of the founders of tactical media. Before the exhibition opened at FACT, I called him up to ask how the movement began and why the exhibition is being compared to fake news.

“The name was coined in Amsterdam by myself, media pirates and artists who were working in that city of the time.” explained Garcia. 

But the term tactical media covers more than just the artists working in Holland at that particular time. Spurred on by a DIY ethos, artists across the world who created work using tactical media all wanted to do the same thing; hijack the media for political impact. 

One of the most notorious examples featured in the exhibition is the Yes Men, a pair of activists who impersonate political figures to put a playful spin on news stories, usually involving human disasters. 

In 2004, the duo contacted BBC news pretending to be from Dow Chemical, the American chemical corporation who own Union Carbide India Limited whose plant was the site of the Bhopal disaster – one of the deadliest gas leaks in history.

Dow have never claimed responsibility for the 1984 incident, which official estimates say killed over 15,000 people. But that didn’t stop the Yes Men from speaking on their behalf. 

Appearing on BBC News one half of the duo, claiming to be a spokesman from Dow Chemicals, opened the interview by saying, “Today I am very happy to announce that for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe.” 

But it turns out the broadcaster had been led into an intricate deception. A BBC producer had been instructed to find a suitable guest from Dow to talk about the chemical incident. They then went to the Dow website, contacted their media office in Paris and exchanged emails. Little did they know that the Dow website had been hacked by the Yes Men, causing all emails meant for the Dow media department, to be diverted to them. 

Straight after the performance Dow’s share price fell 4.2 percent in 23 minutes, wiping $2 billion off its market value. It recovered after the segment was revealed as a hoax but it damaged the broadcaster’s reputation and led to an internal review as to how it verifies information. 

Garcia told me how tactile media isn't just about artists commenting on politics or the media – it’s more reactive than that. “We’re acting as if the change has already taken place.”

“One of the characteristics of tactical media is hoaxes and how artists used fiction to manufacture consent.”

In 2015, when artists Heba Amin, Caram Kapp and Don Stone were contacted by the producers of the US TV show Homeland to create artwork for the series, they weren’t sure if the job was for them. Given the controversies around Homeland’s depiction of the Middle East, the artists were hesitant to respond until they saw it as an opportunity to highlight the show’s lack of cultural understanding. 

In an initial meeting, the production company handed the artists images of “pro-Assad graffiti – apparently natural in a Syrian refugee camp” and asked if they could recreate it. 

But instead the artists decided to accept the job and scrawled “Homeland is racist” in arabic on the set instead. No one ever translated and checked the graffiti and the artwork made it into the finished episode.

In a statement released by the artists, they explained how they saw it as an opportunity to highlight the racist undertones of the show. “It was our moment to make our point by subverting the message using the show itself.”

Tactile media was born in the heyday of MTV. Music videos were becoming multi million pound projects, and the majority of artists didn’t have access to that level of production. But that didn’t stop them incorporating it into their work. “Television was becoming a part of visual culture.” noted Garcia. “It wasn't just about storytelling.” 

I asked Garcia if he was concerned how the tactics he helped advocate and develop are now being used for a different political agenda and what he made of fake news. 

“The post-truth narrative can sound like a howl of pain from a media establishment that has lost the right to set the agenda. In America nearly half the population get their news from social media.”

Is questioning the value of truth something we should be doing, given the current political mood?

“Trump’s midnight Tweets bypasses the normal discussion.” remarked Garcia. “This was all anticipated when we started to theorise tactical media in Amsterdam.”

The main difference between fake news and tactical media is that the reveal is part of the message. It’s only after the artist's claim credit for a stunt that it becomes obvious what the artists is trying to reveal. But with fake news, the reveal never happens and the audience continues none the wiser; never checking the credibility of outlandish stories, but still using it to build their political beliefs regardless. 

How Much of This is Fiction. is open until 21 May

Caroline is the section editor of Art & Design at Little Atoms. She has written for The Guardian, Vice and Dazed & Confused.