On Broadway, fake news, and some new (to me) art

by Rob Tiller

Last week I went to a conference in New York and stayed for the weekend to see loved ones and take in some culture. Midtown was decorated for the holidays, including wreaths, angels, and a very big evergreen with ornaments at Rockefeller Center. It was cheering. Crowded, though. We finally gave up on taxis, on the grounds of slowness, and embraced the subway.

On Broadway we saw The Encounter, a one-man show starring Simon McBurney as a nameless storyteller. His story is about a solo expedition in the Amazon to contact the Mayoruna people, and it’s engrossing. But the performance is as much about the power of our imagination as about the story. The audience members wear headphones, bringing us into an intimate relationship with the storyteller’s voice and the exotic sounds of the jungle. The storyteller repeatedly reminds us that we are in a story, but even with this warning, we can’t help becoming immersed. McBurney manages to get us to look at ourselves in the act of being manipulated.

Fake News
As fake news came into better focus over the last couple if weeks, I’ve felt dread and wonder at how easily people can be deceived by various hoaxes, and then become passionately committed to remaining in their deceived state. At its most bizarre and extreme (as in, the hoax that the Clintons are running a child sex slave business in a D.C. pizzeria), many enthusiasts cannot be dissuaded by reports debunking the tale in the mainstream media. They view these as part of the conspiracy — a cover up.

This is obviously nutty, and it would be nice to think you and I could never be taken in by such craziness. Or would it? Recently I’ve found myself wondering more about whether particular news reports are correct, and even whether my most basic assumptions are reliable. This is uncomfortable, but it’s actually a good thing. Always keeping in view the possibility that we may be wrong makes us more likely to consider new information and open to revising our beliefs — updating our credences, as Bayesians say. It also fosters a degree of humility, as we recognize that none of us has perfect knowledge, and all of us are prone to error.

That said, some descriptions of events are more wrong than others, and certain wrong ones are dangerous — like one inspiring an armed man showing up at a pizza parlor to avenge an made-up crime against children. In the long term, better education may be the way to address the mass hoax problem. There are various mental resources involved in assessing possible new facts, which include a good fund of background knowledge, evaluation of the reliability of sources, and weighing of evidence.

These resources and skills take time to acquire. In the short term, we need to use our best hostage negotiation skills with people seized by a dangerous conspiracy theory — try to keep the conversation going, and if they’re armed, be prepared to dive for cover.

New (to me) art

While in New York, I saw a lot of interesting art, including video work. At the New Museum, there was an exhibit of the work of Pipilotti Rist, a Swiss artist, who used video technology to explore nature. There were early works designed for a single viewer to insert her head up through a hole in a pyramid with the base on a wall to watch a screen and be surrounded by sound. Her more recent works are large-scale installations intended for groups of viewers.

In one work, she placed beds on the gallery floor and watery images on the ceiling, surrounded by meditative music, which led strangers to lie down together, look upwards, and relax. The images weren’t all that interesting, but the experience was. We were taken both inward and outward, into our feelings and out into relationships, as the artist made us into part of the art.

Video art is challenging, in that it resists skimming. You have to give it some time. And a given work may be boring, or anyway, not for you. But unlike painting, which lives most comfortably in a private dwelling, video’s natural home can be in a museum, where it can keep on playing and waiting for the right people to watch it. And those people can share it, and have a communal experience.

Also at the New Museum, I spent some time with the Cheng Ran’s work, Diary of a Madman, which is an outsider’s view of the gritty side of New York. Where Rist was loosely improvisatory and mostly cheerful, Ran was focused and melancholy, with exquisite technique and tight control. He visibly struggled to extend the expressive possibilities of new technology and embrace the world of humans and their detritus.

At the Whitney, I took in Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, which had a lot of video artists’ work displayed on large screens and other surfaces. A lot of the work was interesting mainly as art history, rather than as a provocative message for right now, but there were some provocations. My favorite piece was by Andrea Crespo, titled Neurolibidinal Induction Complex 2.2. It used words (isolated emotions, for example) and colors to give us a reboot. I also particularly liked the work of Lynn Hershmann Leeson, which included female cyborgs and bots, including one with an unsettling holographic gaze who could do an irritating conversation with you.

I also spent some time looking at Bruce Conner’s Crossroads, It’s a slow motion depiction of U.S. nuclear tests off Bikini Island in 1946. If you tend to think that nuclear weapons are an existential threat to the human species, you will continue to think that after seeing the film. Seeing the images is sobering, and may make us think more about stopping the madness, which we clearly need to do.

We went out to the Brooklyn Museum to see the work of Marilyn Minter, known for her explorations of female faces and forms and of the dark underside of fashion. I wasn’t crazy about her monumental paintings, but I liked her quirky videos. At MOMA, we saw the Francis Picabia exhibit, which we liked. He had a great visual imagination, great technical ingenuity, and a willingness to continually experiment. His was a questing spirit.

Finally, while Sally went to the Breuer and saw (at my recommendation) the fine Kelly James Marshall exhibition, I went to the Met to see Beyond Caravaggio — paintings of Valentin de Boulogne, a French artist who worked in Rome in the early 1600s. I really liked Valentin! The paintings had much of the intensity of Caravaggio, with his amazing understanding of light and the human figure, but had a broader emotional range, including people who were clearly individuals, with secrets and regrets.