On the Tenacity of False Paradigms and the Memory of Conceptual Art Piece in Portland
Martin Truther, July 18, 2011
In the middle of one hall of the Portland Art Museum was a plain white wall about seven feet high and seven feet wide. On one side of the wall, was a heavy tripod with a large video camera bolted down trained directly at the wall so that the white wall filled the whole field of view. On the other side of the wall, on a plain white pedestal, facing away from the wall was a black and white television showing... whiteness. A wire ran from the back of the camera, under the wall and up to the back of the television. That was the set-up.
And maybe you asked yourself, "Is it... working?... Is the whiteness on the screen really the same whiteness that the camera is recording?". And, if you did ask, what could you do to test that? One was not allowed to touch the camera or the wall or the television. One could wave one's hand in front of the camera, but there was no way for one to see the television at the same time. One could watch the television, but there was no way for one to reach around and position anything in front of the camera at the same time... what to do?
The answer was "two". My sister and I took turns. Each of us watched while the other waved a hand in front of the camera and we saw... nothing. But we couldn't really see each other during the watching and hand-waving. We had to trust the other was really placing his or her hand in front of the lens, which was not as easy as might be imagined because, at that time, we were in the habit of teasing each other mercilessly, as you're probably aware ;-)
What a perfect microcosm that was. On the one hand, if it's on a television, it must be true. I mean, why would the artist position the electronics there and not have them performing their natural intended functions? On the other hand, our direct experience, but only insofar as we could actually trust each other, was that the system was malfunctioning-- the picture wasn't getting through.
I wish I knew the name of the artist, because it was only years later that the beauty of that installation struck me.
Can there be a more thankless task than convincing people the planet they live on is round when they've lived their whole lives on a flat Earth-- a safe Earth, solid, firm, steady and reliable as the center of all creation? What folly it is to suppose anyone would be glad to know all human history has occurred on a tiny pale blue dot on the edge of an insignificant galaxy hurtling through space at incredible speeds with the possibility of collision never close enough to zero for comfort.
In our times, the most obvious failing of human intellect is the unwarranted reliance on mainstream culture for knowledge about the world we live in.
Sure, we know things are bad and that they won't get better until a critical mass of people truly understand how the world we live in works and has worked for centuries, but... that doesn't mean anyone is going to be grateful for the knowledge, even if parts of the news is good.
The task of truthing is all about the first step. Once a person somehow realizes the picture they've been receiving isn't reality, and they get over the denial of that simple truth, their insatiable curiosity takes over and they often go rapidly from insight to insight to insight. Usually the first step is quite personal and often painful-- a near death experience, a life-threatening disease, an encounter with a UFO, witnessing criminal activity by powerful people-- these are the things that generally get people started, not well-meaning "truthers".
We can know in an abstract way that "Knowledge is power", but that's only half the story, isn't it? Knowledge can only be translated into power as long as (1) the knowledge is true, (2) the knowledge is actionable, and (3) the knowledge is exclusive enough to give the knower an advantage over others who are less knowledgable.
That being the case, why would people broadcast true knowledge and give away whatever advantage they might enjoy by exploiting that knowledge? Well, maybe because we suppose that most people are "like us" and take a live-and-let-live attitude and like to freely share knowledge for the general enrichment of all concerned. Many of us are like that and many of us suppose that. However, the people who are ambitious or fortunate enough to own television stations and newspapers, like to make money, a lot. And they're fully capable of making different choices than you and I in order to do so.
But does that knowledge make any difference? Most people suppose that there's enough competition in the news media that if source A won't cover a story, source B will rush in to "get a scoop" and maybe a Pulitzer prize. That's the myth of free enterprise and free press. And most of us cling to that myth in spite of the fact that the news media is owned by fewer and fewer people every year.
We know that many of the stories we hear are lies. We know that Iraq had no WMD's and the war was and is and will be about oil. We know that electronic voting systems are used to rig elections. But the news keeps telling us the opposite as if they, in the face of the same evidence we've seen, simply came to a different, but reasoned, conclusion. And it's not that at all.
The bounds of public discourse are narrow and getting narrower. There are dozens of ground-breaking stories that could be told, but everyone knows it would be career suicide to do so.
Once you know that the "free press" is worth every penny you don't pay for it (even newspapers' revenue is 70% advertising or more), many other things become apparent, obvious even. But that's the big hurdle to get over...
The picture is not coming through, and we can know that if we can learn to trust each other.