Art as Conspiracy

By: Jean-Ernest Joos | 2006

Musée national des beaux arts du Québec

“Why is there something, rather than nothing?” is a question to be posed to art by those faced with its object: the artist, his viewers, the critics. For, in the end run there could very well be nothing. This may even be for the better. After all, if all is in the idea, as dreamed of by conceptual art, then it would be better if there be nothing in its place of origin, which is to say in the idea. Yet, we know, and one has to come to terms with this reality: there is always something, a little something, a trace, a found object, be it but the semblance of an object.

Engine, 2006, wood, fiberglass and polymer modified cement 260 x 360 x 260 cm

 The question recalls that of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and this is not just a simple analogy: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” It is with this question that Heidegger summed up 2500 years of metaphysics. With this gesture Heidegger upheld that the essential is no longer in the answer, but in the question itself, which remains necessarily and indefinitely open. There is being, and one must make do with this, but no foundation could ever provide an explanation for it. In keeping the question open humankind is confronted with the fact that there is something rather than nothing.

Michel de Broin is an artist that takes the ontological question in art seriously. He is a producer, a maker and creator, in the full metaphysical sense of the term—he gives material existence to the ideas that occupy him. If the project calls for it, he readily becomes a mechanic, engineer or craftsman. He has modified a 1986 Buick so that it runs on the renewable energy generated by its passengers, built a bicycle that moves by transforming physical effort into smoke, pierced a museum building with giant arrows in order to geographically identify the place of art. And yet, all these projects only take on their meaning within the discourse that accompanies them, and the concepts that frame them. So, why build these objects at all? Yet, it is all there. As absurd, and ridiculous as they may be, these objects must be there. Michel de Broin does not spare us this confrontation. So, why is there something rather than nothing?

With his latest project, presented at the Musée de Québec, Michel de Broin’s ontological concern has found its paradigm: conspiracy theory. Extending on the theory according to which an airplane did not crash into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Michel de Broin proposes to exhibit the missing evidence as a work of art, something which resembles a missile, a rocket or an airplane engine. A beautiful exhibition object that can also function as a capsule which viewers can enter, and that comes accompanied with it own explanatory label revealing how part of the building wall had to be demolished to allow the work to be housed in the museum. Michel de Broin thus transposes elements from the theoretical narrative that frame alternative versions of September 11, into the narrative of the art object’s exhibition. To complete the exhibition and make his inquiry more explicit he proposes a piece that “speaks for itself” called Silent Screaming in which an effective and very low-tech machine creates a vacuum in a bell jar, underneath which an impressive alarm bell vehemently hammers away without succeeding in producing the slightest sound. In short, he has created a machine that produces an non-effect, a non-being in the real.

The coherence of all of this resides in the question of being and non-being. We are presented with an object where there should not be anything, and there where there should be a presence we are given nothing to listen to. As a result the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” does not find its answer in the presence of the object, contrary to what art history up until modern art and even beyond would claim. In fact, the point of producing an art object is that it is self explanatory, it can legitimate itself though its own autonomy. Before the object, one admires silently, saying to oneself “This is why this had to be created; indeed, the genius of the artist is to have understood this!” But Michel de Broin’s objects remain ontologically problematic, they are intrinsically paradoxical. Before them the question of “Why something rather than nothing?” is once again raised and left open.

Conspiracy theories are in fact also concerned with ontological questions. Contrary to their claims they do not seek an alternative to the official version, but rather to establish what is and what is not. They tell us that there is something were we see nothing, and that there were there is something there is actually nothing. They always add or subtract something from reality. Based on contradictions in the facts they attempt to make the distinction between being and non-being. However, because it does not aspire to truth, metaphysics, or totalizing explanations, modern science is very good at dealing with contradictions. Based on a very partial view of truth it proposes hypotheses that link some selected facts. If you tell a politician “You are hiding something from us,” he will laugh, “Of course, in any case.” Say the same thing to a scientist and he will smile “Of course, it is not up to me to explain everything.” None of the two is interested in knowing why something exists or does not, in filling in what is lacking in reality, or what one must take away for it to be more coherent. Ask why Aids exists and has killed a generation of homosexual men in the 80s and 90s and is now exterminating Africans, and the really only coherent and global answer would be to say that it was created for this purpose. Otherwise, the only explanation that remains is that of a series of circumstances and bad luck.

As must have become evident by now, conspiracy theories, like Michel de Broin’s current investigations, are concerned with creation in the strongest, i.e. metaphysical, sense of the term: the creation of what is. A nostalgic and compromising question which contemporary art has done its best to rid itself of; but who can really get rid of the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. In order to do so one would have to be able to no longer produce anything at all, which one can of course attempt to do. Michel de Broin takes up the model of creation, but in order to transpose it into its two poles: the created object and the creating artist. On the side of the object he produces objects that are ontologically paradoxical. It must be specified that these objects are not only equivocal in their meaning but also in their very existence. They are objects that may not exist, or could not have existed, and even that should not exist at all. In all the versions of the Pentagon attack, whether it be the official or alternative one, there is no convincing trace allowing one to identify the attacker. The engine proposed by the artist takes the place of an object that is definitively missing; and the existence of which is incompatible with the truth, whatever it be. It is an object that cannot be. Yet, it is for this reason that it is an art object, for only the art object can exist as a paradox, and stand on its own, circulate and reach a public while maintaining its status between the true and the false, being and non-being.

The reconsideration of the notion of creation—one could go so far as to say its deconstruction—is an even more disconcerting one, particularly as it touches not just on the function of the object but that of the artist as well. One has to hear Michel de Broin speak about his project to realize to what extent the idea of conspiracy concerns him as an artist. On the one hand he really does believe that there was a conspiracy, that the truth was deliberately hidden. It is the very basis of his project. As an artist he seeks to restore the truth. He fabricates the missing proof and takes on the role as the game master. He doctors reality, plays on appearances and fools his audience. He is truly a creator when he creates only the false, ontologically speaking, giving existence to that which is not to be. Like the status of the fabricated objects, the dilemma in which the artist is caught up has no resolution. The doubt that is put forth by way of the conspiracy hypothesis justifies the artistic project, but the production presupposes a real conspirator and not a doubting subject. The artist ultimately only believes that which he himself has produced, the reality which he conspired to create and which he presents as the truth to the others.

Art as conspiracy and the artist as conspirator are propositions that fit perfectly into the contemporary landscape. Globalization and its corollary, terrorism, have reinforced the fragmentation of the world. In this sense September 11 is certainly not the model of contemporary terrorism which fits more into a serial pattern (attacks in Madrid, in London, etc.) and dispersion. Bin Laden has become the butt of jokes on American television (Letterman constantly mentions him), because one realises that the movement works very well with or without a leader. Before an increasingly fragmented world the political appropriations, particularly by the American government and conspiracy theories, share a common trait: they produce a unified and centralised vision of the world. According to this view there is a single, identifiable agent behind what is happening to us, a believe that obviously runs contrary to the unfolding of current affairs. This belief has a clearly comforting purpose. The only difference between official discourses and the conspiracy claims is that the latter provide the disenfranchised minorities with a sense of control over reality because they have the last word regarding the deceptions of the institutional powers. The artist thus proposes a third way between the feeling of powerlessness before a fragmented world and the desire for a restored totality. It is the artistic action itself which will restore the lost world, but this time strictly as a work of art, as a presence of the art object, and not an ideological belief.