TAITMAIL Is art the only believable truth now?
Surrounded by fake news, undetectable scams and AI, what can we safely believe?
The answer lies in our museums and art galleries, many are coming to believe, and one of them, Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, is setting out to prove it in a six month, four exhibition exploration called What is Truth?
Some of the most pressing questions across society today are not getting satisfactory answers, says the centre’s director since 2021, Jago Cooper. “We’re engaged in a mission to sort of inspire, intrigue and inform people to enable them to answer the question themselves” he says. “It's not like the museum is telling everyone the answer, what we’re providing is a landscape to explore.
“The museum itself needs to adapt to how we engage people with the big new questions and that requires some pretty structural changes.”
Cooper, above, is laying down a challenge to museums to address current issues in a non-didactic way in what will be a red rag to certain politicians. Unlike many directors whose boards are encrusted with government placemen and women, he is in the lucky position of not having to worry about them: the centre is a university museum with a wholly supportive panel of trustees prepared, Cooper says, to take financial and political risk. “All museums are always political, and pretending they're not is to basically overlook what they are about” he says.
A couple of curator generations ago the Science Museum tried to address newslists with temporary exhibitions in its forecourt with, as I recall, an explanation of the threat to the ozone layer. It was soon scrapped, partly because it was seen as inappropriate for a museum to tangle with public opinion, and partly because it was thought that a proper curator-compiled exhibition took time for a credible project, and by the time it could come to fruition the news moment would have passed.
What Is Truth?, masterminded by the centre’s chief curator Tania Moore, is four exhibitions starting from next month covering misinformation and conspiracy, gender expression, indigenous art and photographic manipulation, with Moore and her team working closely with invited artists to “investigate how we can know what is true in the world around us”, and whether we are living in a new age in which technology can distort reality and diminish our own sense of authenticity.
In In Event of Moon Disaster (February 17-August 4) is a typical 1960s living room with a sideboard, coffee table, easy chair and small black-and-white television set. On the screen is playing a presidential broadcast in which President Nixon explains to the world that the attempted manned moon landing has gone terribly wrong, and three courageous astronauts have tragically died.
It is, of course, deepfake technology created by the new media artist Halsey Burgund and the digital artist Francesca Panetta. “By… creating a video using both synthetic visuals and synthetic audio (a ‘complete deepfake’) we aim to show where this technology is heading, and what some of the key consequences might be” they explain.
Liquid Gender (February 17-August 4) will explore gender expression and identity starting from colonial traditions in which gay and queer artists were not acknowledged, through the work of an array of contemporary artists. Illustrated here is Martine Gutierrez’s Queer Rage from the exhibition.
Jeffrey Gibson (February 24-August 4), the Choctaw/Cherokee descended artist, gets his first ever sole exhibition in this country to show that the practice of abstraction in indigenous art and craft that had been credited with being a 20th century phenomenon is actually fundamental and goes back many centuries.
The Camera Never Lies: Challenging images through the Incite Project (May 18-October 20) reveals how photojournalism by the likes of Don McCullin, Stuart Franklin and Robert Capa, which often create our abiding images of the world’s critical events, can be manipulated, either for visual effect or to create a different narrative. Incite, by the way, is a project to encourage photographers who want to influence change through their work.
The exhibitions – which Cooper admits he would find it difficult to get approved in many larger museums (he was at the British Museum for nine years before taking up his present job) because of the financial and, frankly, political risk – are the next chapter after the centre’s revamp launched in May last year devised to change the relationship between the art (available to touch now as well as sight) and the audience because, he says, art is living and doesn’t thrive behind glass. “We've broken the model of the museum as a place of ownership of art and material culture” he says. “Art material culture is actually the living essence of some of the greatest individual movements and cultures that ever existed, so we understand them as living entities”.
This new openness of the displays means that the exhibition can be interrupted whenever relevant things occur, like the post office crisis. “We can do that, but the speed of thought which is required to do things well requires longer lead times and so we have interventions or reactions to events, or we programme things that can happen in relation to current affairs” Cooper says.
Too many museums still exist in the ethos in which they were created a century or more ago. The challenges that our species faces today are fundamentally different from 100 years ago. “The museum has to respond to those challenges, and for me art is literally the manifestation of human creativity”.
Jago Cooper believes the fundamental shift that his series may be the harbinger of is simple: “For me, you don’t have to be an art person to go into an art museum. You just have to be a person interested in the question.”