New York

“Disinformation: The Manufacture of Consent”

the Alternative Museum

Surely it belongs within the experience of all viewers of art to be so moved by a lousy review as to rush out to see the show. An exhibition so bad, goes the logic, can hardly lack interest; one is moved to discern the prick, the prong that provokes such extremes of passion. So, after reading Michael Brenson’s words in The New York Times of March 22, 1985, I scurried over to see (I quote him) “the kind of exhibition that gives political art its bad name.” What I found in "Disinformation: The Manufacture of Consent: organized by Geno Rodriguez, director of the Alternative Museum, was something else: a show that, as Brenson notes, was of mingled modes, often strident and perhaps excessively didactic, but one that had working for it three solid points: 1) an important topic; 2) a substantial catalogue text by Noam Chomsky; and 3), mixed among the visual confusion common to group exhibitions of political art, a significant number of impressive works.

To address these points in order: “Disinformation” is the media’s distortion of political events through selective coverage, bias, and deletion of information. Its aim is to influence and thereby construct public opinion; it has parallels in the governmental use of false documents to maneuver policy and, more frequently, press coverage. Although disinformation emerged to prominence in the recent squabble over hypothetical Russian MIGs in Nicaragua, it has an extended parentage; as Chomsky notes in his essay, it informs the way our sense of history and national identity is shaped. “The process of creating and entrenching highly selective, reshaped or completely fabricated memories of the past,” he writes, “is what we call ‘indoctrination’ or ‘propaganda’ when it is conducted by official enemies, and ‘education,’ ‘moral instruction’ or ‘character building,’ when we do it ourselves. One goal of successful education is to deflect attention elsewhere—say, to Vietnam, or Central America, or the Middle East, . . . and away from our own institutions and their systematic functioning and behavior. . . . ” Disinformation is thus a powerful, far-reaching, and largely ignored device, whose implications well deserve our thought.

Most of the artists in the exhibition attempted, for better or for worse, to provoke that thought, using precise details garnered from media events. Among the more interesting were Michael Lebron’s poster works using Chase Manhattan Bank advertisements to indicate their implication in foreign policy, Luis Camnitzer’s photo etching from the “Agent Orange Series,” 1984, which treats the distorted descriptions employed to render dangerous chemicals acceptable, and Mimi Smith’s Now Here’s the News, 1985, in which a range of information taken from TV broadcasts is interspersed with conventional, soporific American phrases. Rudolf Baranik’s contribution—a cryptic entry from his ongoing Dictionary of the 24th Century juxtaposed to one of his evocative grisaille paintings—is one of many works treating the simultaneously descriptive, distortive, and hypnotic impact of words. The exhibited section of Margia Kramer’s 15-part multimedia work, New Wozzeck (in progress), deploys material excerpted from the CIA “freedom-fighter’s manual” distributed to anti-Sandinista guerillas. And in one of the most powerful works in the show, If It’s Too Bad to Be True, It Could be Disinformation, 1985, Martha Rosler combined a video installation with newspaper documentation—all thoroughly researched and underlined for effect—to point to the amount, and scope, of media “deflection.”

As Brenson notes, there are lacunae in this show, most notably the absence of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who have dealt repeatedly with public dissuasion. And similarly there is a jarring and often disruptive feeling to much of the work, a feeling magnified by the installation itself. However, “Disinformation” deserves praise for bringing to attention, often with striking effect, some of the central fabrications of our culture.

Kate Linker