Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the international word of the year for 2016. This was particularly apt; it was the year of the UK’s Brexit referendum and our own divisive presidential election. Since then, “post-truth,” which the dictionary defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” has become only more relevant. The term is analogous to that of “fake news,” which exists as both a scare tactic and concern about the facile dissemination of false information online.
These concepts were on the minds of the team at Weinberg/Newton gallery, as they planned their 2020 exhibitions, another election year where emotions are running high and facts are hard to parse.
“I wanted to think through these really big topics: truth, fact versus fiction, objectivity, bias, belief,” says Kasia Houlihan, the gallery’s co-director. “Then as I got to working with the artists and being in dialogue with them, it became really clear to me that while we’re talking about the media specifically, the scope of the exhibition expanded to also include notions of storytelling and listening. There’s these layers, almost like an onion, so we’re going from news to just how we communicate with each other.”
Weinberg/Newton, a non-commercial gallery that collaborates with nonprofit organizations to produce exhibitions on social justice issues, partnered with WBEZ on the group show, “Return to the Everywhere.” Artists could access WBEZ’s archives as they thought through their contributions.
Gwyneth Zeleny Anderson delved deeply into the archives for “Um Radio,” an interactive, modified radio that doesn’t transmit radio signals, but instead broadcasts collaged WBEZ audio tracks made up of interstitial, mostly nonverbal sounds. Working with WBEZ’s media archivist Justine Tobiasz, Anderson located a range of voices and programs: high-pitched, low-pitched, laughs, sobs, stories of fantasy and harsh reality. As visitors turn the dial to hear the different “stations,” they can reference a handmade book by the artist, which offers contextual information on each track. A 2018 “Morning Shift” show plays in the aftermath of Laquan McDonald’s murder. A show from 1993 discusses the neo-Nazi movement in Germany. On a broadcast from 1996, guests reflect on then-President Bill Clinton comparing his wife to Eleanor Roosevelt. A “Wild Room” episode, also from 1996, offers audio snippets of the clashes between police and protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Anderson’s choices reflect the cyclical nature of news.
“I think that there’s maybe a perpetual state of panic and crisis,” Anderson says. “It feels like there’s also patterns of abuse of power. There’s one track that sounds like static but it’s actually rioting after the 1968 Democratic Convention, where it was just complete police brutality. It feels like patterns are truth, basically. Listening to all of these episodes from the eighties and nineties, for me it was sort of medicinal for putting right now into perspective. It’s important to keep track of history.”
Anderson’s is one of several sound art works in the exhibition. Local artist and DJ Sadie Woods created a historical soundscape for her work, “It Was A Rebellion.” The seventy-minute audio piece is installed in the corner of the gallery; visitors can listen via two sets of cordless headphones. The track listing is available nearby. The piece was originally created in 2018, to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the protests it set off.
“I created a sound collage, or soundscape, to tell a story about the riots as rebellions, and also looking at how history has been recorded in sound and in music,” Woods says.
The selection of audio that Woods chose draws from an oft-repeated phrase of King’s: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Woods has long been interested in how riots are talked about, and whose perspectives are reflected in media coverage. Tracks include King’s final speech, where he says that “the greatness of America is the right to protest,” a 1968 CBS broadcast on the riots in Chicago and a song by Black Panther Party member Elaine Brown, “End of Silence.”
“What I hope people take away from it is to rethink how riots have been talked about and also to think about how history is recorded in music,” Woods says. “I do think that art can be a form of, or a means toward liberation, and I don’t think it has been separate from any social movements. It’s always been there.”
“Relations,” a video by Milwaukee-based artist Jesse McLean, takes a more playful stab at our media landscape. Originally conceived in 2010, the two-minute video uses the trope of the spinning newspaper, often used in movies as a transition to the next scene or to signal something is particularly momentous. Here, the spinning newspaper gets bigger and bigger on the screen, never coming to a stop, to hypnotic effect.
“When I made this piece, it was a very different political time. I was still really concerned with how news reaches us and what that means, and the kind of state of fear that we can be kept in,” McLean says. “But I do think, yes, now the piece is probably much more relevant. There’s such an active, outward distrust of journalism.”
The ever-spinning newspaper makes it impossible for the viewer to actually consume the news. It cleverly mimics the twenty-four-hour news cycle of cable news and social media. “It’s something that reflects a kind of anxiety that we feel, having a habitual relationship to consuming journalism and news,” McLean says. It’s akin to watching your Twitter feed automatically refresh itself every few moments. It’s impossible to catch up.
Houlihan hopes this work inspires visitors to think more critically about the information they consume and to realize their own agency as consumers. It’s a theme that permeates these works. Whose stories get told? How is information presented? How do we know what’s true?
“I think taking messages in the media for granted is almost as dangerous as the comfort of ignoring realities different from our own experience,” Anderson says. “Working on this project made me think a lot about the necessity of storytelling —stories of truth and stories of fantasy. We need both, and we need to know which is which.” (Kerry Cardoza)
“The Return to Everywhere,” is on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 688 North Milwaukee, through April 4.