View of “Jonas Staal,” 2018. Photo: Lotte Stekelenburg.

View of “Jonas Staal,” 2018. Photo: Lotte Stekelenburg.

Jonas Staal

Het Nieuwe Instituut

View of “Jonas Staal,” 2018. Photo: Lotte Stekelenburg.

Mission accomplished at home, Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon has washed up in Europe to spread his nationalist evangel. Coinciding with Bannon’s EU travels, Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s “Steve Bannon: A Propaganda Retrospective” traced the right-wing ideologue’s career as an imagemaker. While Bannon came into the spotlight in the 2016 elections when he left Breitbart News to become CEO of Trump’s campaign and then spent seven months as chief strategist in the White House, he had previous stints at Goldman Sachs and in Hollywood where he variously wrote, directed, and produced eighteen movies. Using a spread of monitors and tablets, with extended labels and wall texts, the exhibition traced the ways in which Bannon’s intellectual trajectory is entangled with the history of the new century as it took shape after 9/11.

Bannon’s early activities, while seemingly disparate at first glance, prepared him well for his later undertakings, as Staal showed. Hollywood introduced Bannon to the ins and outs of moviemaking, provided him with a reliable cash flow, and above all convinced him of the importance of cultural production. Later, he was approached to raise money before planning a failed paramilitary-style takeover of Biosphere 2, a closed ecological system near Tucson—perhaps influencing his later turn to climate-change denialism. In 2005, with the Hong Kong–based online marketplace Internet Gaming Entertainment he hired underpaid Chinese gamers to engage in a practice known as “gold farming,” which reqired them to play long hours of World of Warcraft to accrue in-game currency. This activity introduced Bannon to the underworld of the digital communities that he later harnessed into what Staal calls “troll armies for the 2016 Trump campaign,” with the benefits of his experience with Cambridge Analytica, which he helped found in 2013. 

In 2004, Bannon produced and directed In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, a biopic of the US actor turned president. Its superhero protagonist saves Western civilization by defeating the “beast” of Communism, but the film ends with the fall of the World Trade Center: The beast is now reincarnated in the form of Islamic fundamentalism. Inspired by Sergei Eisenstein, Michael Moore, and Leni Riefenstahl, Bannon’s films spread a gospel of “Christian free-market nationalism” supposedly under attack by left-wing elites, migration, feminism, sexual promiscuity, greed, individualism, Islam, and, of course, Barack Obama. Sparing us the misery of having to watch all this footage ourselves, Staal presented excerpts edited to show us the film’s narrative arc and a “visual encyclopedia” of recurring themes and imagery. The latter includes storms, representing the inevitability of the “fourth turning” (an epochal shift in a pseudoscientific theory of historical cycles) and the clash of civilizations. We also see predatory animals standing in for international elites—sharks for the “party of Davos” and so on.

As Bannon said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.” Perhaps his previous failed experiments with the closed ecologies of Biosphere 2 and World of Warcraft’s Azeroth motivated Bannon to create another of his own. In this age of epistemic closure—in which we follow only our posse of like-minded social media personas, “blind” to the work of his holy trinity of power—the film and discursive work of Bannon and co. has created an alternate reality. His propaganda films don’t analyze, explore, investigate, or examine, but rather proclaim, declare, assert, and actively produce, alter, and shape contemporary geopolitical conditions. Museums are public forums for looking at images and asking questions about them. Staal’s exhibition is an attempt to “demythologize [the] core ideas” and images of Bannon and his allies—and perhaps an invitation to make what the artist calls “emancipatory propaganda” that could shape a different reality from the one Bannon created.