Metahaven Is Breaking The Propaganda Machine
The politically minded Dutch design collective explore truth and lies in the internet era in new installation project, The Sprawl.
Published: The FADER, May 6, 2016
On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a missile on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. It crashed in eastern Ukraine, in a region fraught with conflict: pro-Russian, anti-government groups had been engaged in armed battle with Ukrainian forces since the spring. The plane’s 15 crew members and 283 passengers, mostly Dutch and Malaysian vacationers, all died. The Russian government blamed Ukraine. Ukraine said Russia was behind the attack. A criminal investigation, led by the Dutch, is ongoing.
Seven days after the crash, on July 24, 2014, WikiLeaks tweeted a link to a YouTube video, along with a description reading, “Rebels complained back in June that #Ukraine was using passenger jets as human shields.” In the video, a woman identified as “Elena,” standing in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, alleged that Ukrainian forces were provoking pro-Russia separatists to shoot at airliners. Or so I am told by Daniel van der Velden of politically minded Dutch design collective Metahaven, as the YouTube account that was hosting the video has been deleted. (A copy can be found here.)
The WikiLeaks tweet fascinated van der Velden and Metahaven co-founder Vinca Kruk, who together have written a string of books that explore the politics of graphic design—including 2015’s Black Transparency—and worked on projects with the aforementioned WikiLeaks (a 2011 series of designed merch to help them fund their operations) and L.A.-based artists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst (ideas and visual materials for Herndon’s album Platform), amongst others.
Van der Velden believes WikiLeaks posted the tweet as a means through which to support alternative explanations about who downed Flight 17, and why. “At the far end of transparency, you enter into a kind of medieval trapdoor theory where everything can be questioned,” he tells me over an intermittently fuzzy Skype call from the pair’s Amsterdam office.
The Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 thread was one of many such examples that Kruk and van der Velden pulled in the germination stage of The Sprawl, a new video-based project that’s akin to a digital diorama of propaganda on the internet today. With both wit and unease, it explores the proliferation of internet-based propaganda today and its impact on both individual lives and the wider geopolitical landscape.
As its name suggests, The Sprawl’s form does not submit to easy categorization. In late January, a feature-length version of it premiered at Rotterdam International Film Festival, and will be on view at Polish film festival Docs Against Gravity later this month. But The Sprawl also exists as a five-channel video installation that is on display at San Francisco’s YBCA and Warsaw’s MoMA; this weekend, it opens for a three-week run at the U.K.’s Brighton Festival. A third version of The Sprawl launches today as a YouTube channel and a website, which features, amongst other works, short videos that Metahaven calls “shards”—some of which are premiering today on The FADER.
These are a few of the things that exist in The Sprawl: an audio recording made by the Ukrainian Security Service that was supplied to the Dutch police investigating the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash; talking-head scenes with journalist Peter Pomerantsev, artist and theorist Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, and academic Benjamin H. Bratton; grainy “citizen journalism” videos from the Bahraini uprising of 2011, which Gharavi uses to dissent how the uprising’s narrative was effectively “erased” in mainstream media; studio shot clips of actors gazing at screens amidst plumes of smoke; and passages from Russian literature, including a poem by Anna Akhmatova and an extract from Leo Tolstoy’s 1897 book What Is Art?, both read by a Russian narrator.
This non-linear and often context-free combination of cinematic, documentary, and internet-y devices makes for a mind-prodding watch, the kind that kicks off late-night scrolling that lands you down a thousand rabbit holes. Each scene is mediated by either an ambiguously emotive score by U.K. producer Kuedo, who tells me that Metahaven allowed the music the rare opportunity to help inform the video edit, or graphic overlays of shapeshifting colored blocks that by turn obscure and reveal the on-screen action, or sometimes both. Yet for all its vivid yet disorientating storytelling, the responsibility of the narrative arc ultimately lies outside the frame—at the fingertips of the viewer. The Sprawl is less concerned with what “the truth” is, and more interested in the impact that the internet’s avalanche of conflicting truths has on the reality we experience, both individually and collectively.
The Sprawl’s tagline is “propaganda about propaganda,” and its third manifestation—dropped like breadcrumbs across YouTube—is the one that feels closest to the spirit of the project; its fragmentation is a reflection of the way we half-see, half-read, half-understand the world in these hyper-distracted times. But what does propaganda even mean today?