Navine G. Khan-Dossos, The Spies Are Intercepted, 2016, gouache on panel, 13 3/4 × 9 7/8". From the thirty-six-part suite Remaining and Expanding, 2016.

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, The Spies Are Intercepted, 2016, gouache on panel, 13 3/4 × 9 7/8". From the thirty-six-part suite Remaining and Expanding, 2016.

Navine G. Khan-Dossos

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, The Spies Are Intercepted, 2016, gouache on panel, 13 3/4 × 9 7/8". From the thirty-six-part suite Remaining and Expanding, 2016.

“Soft power,” or the co-opting of personal desire through cultural persuasion, is a tactic employed by governments, terrorist organizations, and trolls alike. One could take ISIS and its media machine as a case in point, which is what Athens-based British artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos did through her exhibition “Command: Print.” Its centerpiece was Remaining and Expanding, 2016, a suite of thirty-six gouache-on-panel paintings sourced from the fifth issue (November 2014) of Dabiq, the online propaganda magazine of ISIS. Khan-Dossos reproduced pages from the issue and mounted the results together as an editorial board might mock up a draft issue to check layout and pacing; however, the artist redacted all imagery and text by rendering each block into a mélange of abstract color fields featuring differing bars, bands, and circles. Khan-Dossos titled each of the abstract panels with their original headers or with lines of text that appeared on the page, such as The Spies Are Intercepted and The New Coins. While the work could be considered as political “redaction art” in line with Jenny Holzer’s “Redaction Paintings,” 2004–, or Laura Poitras’s Disposition Matrix, 2016, the artist’s decision to blend colors only from the CMYK (intended for print) and RGB (intended for the screen) palette ranges tempted the viewer to think not only of the information hidden but to consider how online content becomes tangible, and possibly more personalized, if it is printed out at home; this idea was reinforced by the exhibition’s title.

Long before political memes came into fashion, Benedict Anderson proposed that printing sowed the origins of nationalism by helping separated groups share common interests and language to produce a sense of belonging to what he dubbed an “imagined community.” To speed the magazine’s outreach to Muslims across the globe and attract migration to the self-stylized caliphate in formation, Dabiq is also published in English. Throughout the magazine, Islamists are asked to take part in building a new homeland and to defeat the homelands’ enemies. The magazine’s eschatology of “epic battles” is mixed with managerial reports on state building; we are informed, for instance, of plans to mint money from captured gold and silver stores to free the state from the international fiat currency system.

Joining Remaining and Expanding was a suite called Printer Paintings, 2013: egg tempera paintings on wood that superimpose depictions of printer cartridges with moiré test patterns in CMYK. These boards could imply a kind of pre-image used to set a press; however, if considered within the logic of digital media, their block and checkerboard forms echo the loading placeholder frames found when news feeds are checked frantically during a time of crisis. Rather than offering established content the viewer may firmly hold in her own hands, these works evoke the distress and dependence readers may experience today as they habitually scour social media, looking for answers.

Before Pokémon Go went viral, a more terrifying mythical beast was already filling hard drives across the United States. The monster was none other than Pepe the Frog, a cheeky anthropomorphic amphibian sporting a devil-may-care attitude while urinating. Although Matt Furie originally created the character in 2005 for a stoner cartoon series called Boy’s Club, it was appropriated and recoded a decade later by another boys’ club, the alt-right, to grow a like-minded “Trump Army” of trolls spreading disinformation and xenophobia across the Web. Pepe became a pawn of a new kind of partisan, the so-called memetic engineer, now at the center of the contemporary fight for hearts and minds globally.

Captain Brian J. Hancock, an intelligence executive in the US Army, studied how Al Qaeda, whose propaganda magazine Inspire was an early model for Dabiq, isolated potential “memeoids” and exposed them “to a single meme set many times a day for months, or years, without contact from other memes.” This truly sinister filter bubble can produce a “dependent mental state” in certain individuals that “causes their brains to release dopamine and endorphins giving them a high.” While both activists and the intelligence services are hard at work mirroring “counter messages” through the same seductive mediagenic tactics as their rivals, “Command: Print” upended this process to do a necropsy on the formal mechanics of how deviance goes viral.

Adam Kleinman