At a time when right wing populist demagogues routinely denounce experts and expertise a movement of interdisciplinary artists and researchers has emerged whose work unapologetically forgegrounds factual analysis and evidence. The movement spans the generations from young artists to some who have been active for decades but the current climate has seen them crystalize into something like a movement that artist/curator Paolo Cirio has dubbed “Evidentiary Realism”. What follows is an attempt give these practices a wider critical context and speculate on how these efforts could be seen as part of a broadly based drive towards a “knowledge democracy”
“The internet for all its benefits, has led to an epistemological crisis of unprecedented scale, facilitating the international rise of demagogues and reactionary populists” Mark O’Connell [New Statesman July 2019]
What is striking in this quotation is that Mark O’Connell has chosen to characterize our current predicament not as political or cultural or economic or even ecological but as “epistemological”, a crisis of knowledge. Moreover one of the aggravating symptoms of this crisis is the way the a new breed of far right populists have bypassed traditional forms of propaganda, focusing on forms of misinformation that go beyond simple deception, operating instead through establishing “grey areas” or “zones of uncertainty” in which well established norms on subjects such as climate change, migration, poverty, race and sexual identity are not so much rebuffed through competing narratives but systematically called into question through tactics of obfuscation, irony, deniability, displacement and distraction. This is not simply about deception or the struggle between competing narratives, it is a battle for the social mind within the context of a war on knowledge itself.
The claim that we are in the midst of a campaign that is explicitly anti-knowledege is reinforced by the words of numerous high profile figures. We have Farage’s frequent attacks on Universities, Michael Gove’s infamous assertion that “we’ve had enough of experts”. There is the Trumpian use of the term “alternative facts” and Boris Johnson’s systematic avoidance of scrutiny by either journalists and more recently by parliament. It is in this anti-knowledge, populist climate that an art movement has emerged based on the foregrounding of fact, evidence and knowledge in both style and its substance.
”There is a new way of understanding our times.. a new wave of realism, a new wave of artists who are engaged in political issues. “Evidential Realism” is the realism of today… “ These are the words spoken by artist Paolo Cirio in a recent BBC radio documentary , ‘Evidently Art’.
An art movement that emphasises evidence or “art as evidence” was initially articulated by the curator Tatiana Bazzachelli in 2016. The ideas were further developed in 2017 with greater emphasis on various forms of knowledge infrastructures, by the artist and curator Paolo Cirio in a publication and exhibition that introduced the term “Evidentiary Realism”. Typically it is a movement that combines data gathering, data analysis and digital imaging to illuminate complex social systems for broadly progressive social purposes. In his exhibition notes Cirio describes how the “ the truth seeking artworks featured explore the notion of evidence and its modes of representation”. It is noteworthy side effect that this is perhaps the first fully-fledged research led art movement. It covers a wide spectrum of artists including Lawrence Abu Hansen, Wachter & Judt, Paolo Cirio, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Forensic Architecture, Trevor Paglen, Lev Manovich, Morehshin Allahyar, to name just a few. As I write Bazzachelli is busy building on these achievements with the event CITIZENS OF EVIDENCE that is “exploring the investigative impact of grassroots communities and citizens to expose injustice, corruption and power asymmetries”.
Recently mainstream awareness of this movement has grown significant enough to become the subject of a recent BBC radio documentary “Evidently Art” in which Andrew McGibbon interviewed a number of artists involved. Within the confines of what is possible in a short documentary McGibbon does a good job of introducing this movement to a wider audience. But although a number of probing questions were asked, important issues remained untouched. The most urgent of these questions revolve around what we might expect (or even demand) of a cultural movement driven by the primacy of evidence and data when the nature and status of knowledge itself is in crisis.
Cirio himself acknowledges that applying the principles of ‘realism’ in art is not new. Indeed some of the basic principles of this movement were already in place in the 19th century naturalism, and most particularly in Emile Zola’s literary theory and practice developed in texts such as “Le Roman Experimentale”. To be clear Zola’s usage of the term “Experimentale” is not formalist experimentation in the modernist sense of experimenting with (for example) the novelistic structure, rather it is an idealised notion of the scientific method applied to both art in order to bring about social progress. According to Robin Bus, the title of Zola’s theoretical exposition, Le Roman Experimentale, is a deliberate echo of the medical researcher Claude Bernard’s Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865) a text which shaped Zola’s intellectual development with its detailed descriptions of the application of the scientific method through systematic observation and verification and underpinned by Auguste Comte’s deterministic positivism.
Currently the most developed expression (some would say the ‘gold standard’) of this movement is the work of Forensic Architecture, an art and knowledge research center based at Goldsmith’s University and led by architect Eyal Weizman. The support of an institutional framework provides Forensic Architecture with the ideal platform to support a critical mass of interdisciplinary research. Its members include “Journalists, architects, 3D modelers, animators, coders, lawyers working on multiple projects. In a few short years they have compiled an impressive range of projects and investigations. In a time when nearly any major conflict, crime or event generates large quantities of data from multiple sources, Forensic Architecture’s rich combination of analytical disciplines and experimental methods routinely achieves outcomes that are not only taken seriously in legal and journalistic contexts but are also featured in major art venues around the world.
When pressed in interview as to whether identifying their outputs as art might… “take the edge off the truth he is trying to show” Weizman pushed back, insisting that the specific sensibility of artists, architects and film makers are particularly important part of FA’s armory.
“Think about it. When the most important piece of evidence coming from battle fields world wide are video graphic. You need video makers to make sense of it. They would be the right people to look at it to notice the nuances of color and shade and blur. And to understand how one piece of video might relate to another. Indeed aesthetic sensibilities. The sensibilities of an architect an artist or a film maker are very useful in figuring out what has taken place.”
I would agree but also respond to Weizman by arguing that this rationale is only part of the story as there is also something else going on, something that is as much rhetorical as it is evidential. The audio-visual installations produced by this movement represent, through their info-graphic style a distinctive “evidential aesthetic”. They do not persuade through the substance of their factual analysis alone but also through a rhetorical ability to project an aura of the incontrovertible, an indexical aesthetic with a deep roots and a deep appeal to the modernist sensibility. But to what end? Have we not learned to be skeptical about anything that looks like the reemergence of an unproblematised scientific empiricism?
But at this particular moment particularly when speaking of misinformation and the anti-science of climate change deniers Evidential Realists might insist on an unambiguous, pro-evidence stance, and that respect for hard won expertise and facts have particular importance at this historical juncture. If we feel that emphasizing the importance of pushing back against anti-knowledge forces is exaggerated we can see how ‘live’ these questions through the following example.
- Christian Democrats Intervene -
An important example of the role Evidentiary Realism can play in countering politically motivated obfuscation is the mysterious intervention of Germany’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) in order to subvert a report by Forensic Architecture to the parliamentary commission looking into the murder of Halit Yozgat.
The report has its origins in the investigative installation into Halit Yozgat’s murder that is one of FA’s most impressive and powerful works. It is a meticulous multi-faceted recreation of the neo-Nazi murder of Yozgat in an internet café in Kassel. It is an extraordinary audio-visual distillation of complex questions of ballistics and motion studies that translate complex data in ways that illuminate the many contradictions around the possible role of the presence of the German Secret Service presence at the scene of the killing. The work was plucked out of its context of Dokumenta probably Germany’s most important art event. Forensic Architecture were commissioned submit a report to the parliamentary inquiry. Strangely Germany’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) publishing a counter report just one day ahead of Forensic Architecture’s submission to the German Parliamentary inquiry in Hessen that was considering the case Murder of Halit Yozgat.
What is strange and as yet unexplained was the reasoning behind this sudden intervention by the Christian Democratic Party, not only in the publishing of a counter report but also seeking to de-legitimize Forensic Architecture’s work on the basis that it is the work of artists and therefore should not be taken seriously as evidence. In contrast the CDU’s report was not only unsigned it did not even adhere to the most basic research requirements of referencing of sources or credits. This is the politics of anti-knowledge that Evidential Realists could be seen as resisting. Far from seeking to pursue a line of argumentation or interrogate the evidence, Christeena Vavia of Forensic Architecture argues that the CDU’s aim was simply to “blur and obfuscate ”. When the BBC approached the CDU for comment, answer came there none.
The Evidentiary Realist movement has emerged at a historical juncture with implications that go beyond the intrinsic value of individual works and projects as it is possible to see the movement as a counterweight to the corrosive anti-knowledge tactics of reactionary populism. But as we reflect on the achievements we should also reflect on whether the underlying “faith in exposure” and evidence also carry their own epistemological risks. The knowledge crisis can never be about facts and evidence alone. It is crucially about the ways in which knowledge circulates. False information “outperforms” verified statements online to use Buzzfeed’s telling verb. Algorithms for on line content selection are designed to maximise circulation-or what commentators stubbornly persist in calling “engagement” (Marres 20018). The evidentiary movement is the start of a conversation that needs to become deeper something that enables us to identify the sites where the relationship between politics and knowledge are most tractable.
-Risk and Reflection-
The deeper conversation might begin by taking account of the origins of the breakdown of trust between citizens and the scientific establishment combined with the wider post war liberal consensus. To a degree when Gove declared that “we have had enough of experts” he had a point. However the causes of this rupture are not just about the internet as Mark O’Connell asserts in the introductory paragraph. A wider process of erosion that has been in train for decades. It the early 1980s and 90s a number of sociologists began to theorize some of the side effects of globalisation. The most notable contribution to this discussion came was Ulrich Beck’s The Risk Society (1992) he saw the breakdown of the nation state as a silo as undermining the reliable predictive management of risk. Beck argues that this is important because “insurable risk was essential in establishing trust in the progressive nature of capitalism as well as the nation state’s internal order.” In short the era of reliable methods for anticipating the unforeseeable making accidents in the aggregate predictable was at an end, propelling us into an era of radical indeterminacy and incalculable risk
However, from the perspective of this discussion, the key point of Beck’s analysis, is that the institutions of the natural sciences were not only slow to recognise these new conditions they were (and remain) effectively locked into a mindset of denial or worse . They acted as though their very legitimacy and authority depended on denying the very possibility of incalculable risk “even though these risks force their way into the institutions like a virus that weakens them from within”. The latest example of this weakening from within is the Volkswagen Diesalgate scandal.
A clear line can be traced from Beck’s account of the dangers he saw on the horizon in the early 1990s to the current collapse of the trust in the institutions that are supposed to “ know” and the political consequences that have followed. So when scientists march on Washington demanding that facts and evidence (including the facts about climate change) are taken seriously they might also reflect on their own role and the role of their institutions in shaping the epsitemic rupture we are witnessing. If the arts are to take this subject on they/we must go beyond the “evidential”. It is not enough to turn artists and other activist citizens into investigative reporters and researchers who simply replicate the narrow empirical methods and assumptions of the earlier regime.
Some of the most generative evidentiary works in which the questioning of the basis of its evidential assumptions are folded into the works themselves. And classical sociology offers us some important tools. Max Weber defined sociality as ‘the curation of our actions with an eye towards their interpretation by others’. This definition might serve as an introduction to a number of artists whose work take into account of the highly reflexive nature of the evidential on social media platforms. I will look at just two examples both of whom combine the evidential with a reflexive relationship to both system and subjectivity. The artist Erica Scourti’ work ’Outage’ is the artists’ own biography as a traditional printed book. However the content of this experimental biography is constructed not by her but by a ghost writer who was commissioned by the artist to craft a narrative based only information sources gleaned from the investigations of a group of experts in cyber security, digital privacy and social profiling. This is just one instance Scourti’s rich body of works which has found numerous entry points through which to curate and engage experimentally with her digital identity or data-body.
Another artist whose use of the evidence we should consider is Micheal O’Connell whose work collected on http://www.mocksim.org/. O’Connell’s work infiltrates the mundane technological systems that we have no choice but to engage with such as automated supermarket check-out systems to parcel information tracking systems. In a recent work, he set up three bank accounts and a standing order that sent small sum of money (£1) flowing in pointless circles between the accounts on a daily basis generating mountains of bank statements from each bank..mockery and playful experimentation lie at the heart of O’Connell’s practice, revealing the myriad ways in which so called ‘smart’ infrastructure as frequently dumb… There are many artists who work in these ways that have the effect of intensifying the reflexive potential of the systems we inhabit. Artists such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ian Allen Paul, Mario Pfeifer and many more who successfully bypass the trend of establishing the “evidential” as some universal space founded on an aura of incontrovertibility.
-Knowledge Democracy and the Design of Supportive Environments-
“We need to recover the central role in public life of experimental facts: statements whose truth value is unstable”
Noortje Marres.Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 4 (2018) 423-443
The artist Jonas Staal, in his recently published Propaganda Art in the 21st Century argues that “when we speak of post truth it is crucial to emphasise that there is no norm to return to.” He goes on “rather there are various competing realities, past and present, each trying to impose its own set of values, beliefs and behaviors”. This reiteration is a version of the familier post-structuralist trope in which various truth claims are reduced to rival narratives of those seeking power. This is a position at the furthest remove of the Evidentialist movement with its advocacy of empirically based facts and evidence. We are looking at a familier dichotomy which returns us to the question at the heart of the epistemic crisis: “is it time we gave up on the task desciding on more or less valid contributions to public knowledge” ? The answer given by Sociologist Noortje Marres to this question in her essay “Why We Cant Have our Facts Back” is a resounding NO. But she qualifies this position by arguing, that we must first reject knowledge claims based on appeals “to the authority of experts grounded in the authority of statements that are validated outside of the public domain.” The phrase “outside of the public domain is telling here as it suggests that resentment against experts is based on the fact that their power is located beyond any possibility of public scrutiny, or engagement. Marres goes on to assert that in the context of “today’s dynamic and diverse public spheres epistemic authority will have to be earned the hard way through an exchange between epistemically diverse viewpoints”. But how and where can this vision of a “knowledge democracy” unfold?
- Regulation -
To speak seriously of creating a knowledge democracy is to immeditely ask how? Realistically, where is the traction? Where do experts meet the structures with the power to intervene in our lives? Where does the rubber hit the road ? The answer is the relatively new realm of independent power – regulation – The bodies that oversee the day to day development of the rules required to manage the dangers of science based progress. This regulatory regime is the unelected network of goverment appointed agencies often with quasi judicial power, made up almost entirely of experts. It is they whose oversite we look to ensure safety of aerospace, pharmaceuticles, food safety. The complexity of the work they do means that they can’t be managed by traditional parliamentary insitutions or overseen by traditional executive power as regulation is a continuous process of investigation, consideration and enforcement. Though essential this regime is opaque and remote from public scrutiny, engagement or accountability. Any attempt at re-building trust in epistemic authority must begin by rethinking the position of the regulatery sphere within the wider constitution and asking whether their status as a distinctive part of the constitution on a par with say the judiciary needs to be acknowledged with boundaries defined. At the very least we could (and must) open these structures up to public scrutiny, engagement and in some cases intervention.
- Assemblies -
Opportunities being generated by the current strain being felt by our current constitutional structures to open up new avenues to connect greater public engagement to political decison making. One of these opportunities lies in the increasing exploration of ‘’citizens assemblies” as a means of tackling intractable problems in a less adversarial way. Citizens selected through ‘sortition’ work alongside experts whose knowledge relevant to particular issues in ways that contribute to a decision making process.
Returning to the role of the arts it is easy to imagine how groups like Forensic Architecture might use their analytical audio visual capabilities to make complex and contentious issues accessible as in the case of Halit Yozgat’s murder where these capabilities was used to inform a parliamentary commission. As we have seen a number of artist/researchers such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Forensic Architecture already have an impressive record of combining academic frameworks, public exhibitions and juridical interventions. But these well established frameworks that provide limited scope for experiment in how we might create new partnerships between the experts and citizens. It is not too much of a stretch to widen this to commissioning artists with these skill sets to play a role within citizen’s assemblies. But one might go beyond the presentation of fact and evidence evidence and think about the discourse space itself. In this regard the artist Jonas Staal offers an interesting set of possibilities with his history as an experimental designer of supportive environments. His projects both exhibitions and workshops that operate as highly curated shared workspaces that facilitate experimental forms of collective public learning.
A frequently sited example is the role of citizens’ assemblies in the Irish abortion refferendum whose recommendations were felt to have played an important role in both the outcome and the tenor of the debate. In this example the role of experts and expertise was able to move from the remote and technocratic to the public and the dialogical. We can only imagine how arrangements for deliberative public discourse around the complexities of delivering Brexit, in which experts had worked alongside citizens rather than pronouncing from above, would have impacted on the quality of the discussion. I am not suggesting that these assemblies represent a magic bullet moreover not all assemblies are as successful as the Irish example but they represent one way of responding to the fact that as Marres argued “validating public facts will have to happen in the public domain [….] we will need to re-envision what a public fact is in a world that is not only marked by contingency but also epistemic diversity and dynamism.”
- Addendum -
- Addendum -
This essay was written as part of my personal preparation for the War on Knowledge workshop at
Brighton Digtal Festival- This workshop will be led by OiLab a research network at the forefront of
investigation into the impact of on-line discourse on knowledge and politics. The hope is that this
workshop will illuminate some of the questions outlined above on October the 17th at Brighton
University. The workshop has a limit of 50 participants so anyone interested should register soon.
Evidently Art – BBC radio iplayer (for a limited time only)
Noortje Marres – Journal Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 4 20018
Micheal Seemann – Digital Tailspin
- OiLab: Open Intelligence Lab
- Jonas Staal
- Micheal O’Connell/Mockism
- Erica Scourti
- How Much of This is Fiction
- The War on Knowledge- Brighton Digital Festival