Larne Abse Gogarty, What We Do is Secret: Contemporary Art and the Antinomies of Conspiracy

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Gogarty asks if conspiracy theories should be seriously examined as an alternative practice of knowledge exposing liberal reasoning.

Larne Abse Gogarty’s What We Do is Secret is a book of art criticism that takes issue with the idea that liberals are custodians of  “’common sense’ and reasonable behaviour”.1 Liberal is a notoriously flexible term, of course: some conservatives view themselves as inheritors of a liberal tradition and both the left and far-right use ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse. Gogarty, who is based in the United Kingdom, has in her sights the ‘common sense’ of the UK political establishment (of the Conservative government, but also the opposition Labour party under Sir Kier Starmer). It has become the consensus view of these politicians in recent years that some issues are beyond the pale of reasonable opinion. Foremost among taboo subjects is any demand for racial justice, like the one that emerged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, expressed in the UK most vividly by the toppling of the statue of slave trader Sir Frederic Colston in Bristol.2 To draw attention to the British Empire’s profit from slavery and colonialism is now an offense against common sense, as it is to express concern about institutionalized racism and misogyny in the UK police force. Moreover, disruptive protest of any kind has been criminalized, with some climate protestors now receiving harsh custodial sentences for briefly interrupting rituals of the capitalist death drive. 

Defenders of even-handedness and common decency in the UK government have, in the meantime, moved asylum seekers onto prison barges and drawn up plans to send them to Rwanda while claims are processed, threatening to circumvent international law, should it get in the way of these modest proposals. In short, liberal common sense increasingly throws in its lot with nationalism, chauvinism and sadism.3 This context explains why Gogarty proposes that the conspiracy theory should be seriously examined as an alternative practice of knowledge that exposes liberal reason as a mask of domination. Gogarty acknowledges, of course, that conspiracy theories are often recruiting grounds for the far right and that they are typically pervaded by racist tropes; however, she rightly resists the idea that conspiracy theories are dangerous simply because they depart from sanctioned consensus.4

No matter how many catastrophes and injustices liberal and neoliberal technocrats preside over, they view themselves as the custodians of the western Enlightenment, defending a rules-based order from irrational populism. Liberal opinion has, therefore, laid the blame for the populist wave since 2016 at the door of Cambridge Analytica, or Russian meddling, or China, or the unregulated internet. These explanations are typically as paranoid as any conspiracy theory.5 As Gogarty also points out, the liberal mainstream brands left-wing critique as conspiratorial however vigilantly it adheres to rational norms. Clearly then, there is no reason for leftists to be squeamish about exploring the ‘garish illegitimacy’ of conspiracy theories, for what they might teach about effective resistance against the ruses of liberal rationality, and the irrational capitalist order that it serves.6

No matter how many catastrophes and injustices liberal and neoliberal technocrats preside over, they view themselves as the custodians of the western Enlightenment.”

What does contemporary art have to do with this though? In the extended introduction to the book, Gogarty builds on work by post-colonial theorist David Lloyd to argue that the Western tradition of aesthetics ‘naturalizes forms of life lived under the rule of property’.7 The details of Lloyd’s argument are more involved than it is possible for me to unpack here, but it is obvious that art enshrines liberal values (such as the sanctity of property rights). The museum, the art market and art criticism all developed their modern forms in concert with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the emergence of the nation state. It is also well-known that traditional aesthetic concepts, such as the Kantian idea of ‘disinterested’ judgment, express the idealized self-image of the male property-owning elite of the eighteenth century. Women, the working-class and non-Western people were deemed too in thrall of their senses to be capable of judgements of taste, or indeed any rational insight whatsoever. One of the things Gogarty does in her book is to ask whether contemporary art, where artists and curators  routinely claim to subvert traditional aesthetic categories, might also disrupt the racist and misogynistic foundation of this liberal ‘common sense’.8

Some readers will be understandably skeptical of this project. Contemporary art is criticized from the left as a playground for the ‘1%’and an alibi for the onslaught of neoliberal globalization. How can it subvert, in any meaningful way, the status quo? On the other hand, contemporary art is also the object for right-wing conspiratorial fantasizing, imagined as a kind of secret tunnel complex where cosmopolitan elites hatch plots against western civilization. Both attacks over-simplify a complex situation to serve their polemic, but both contain at least a grain of truth. Contemporary art does often pay lip service to political subject matter while engaging in liberal self-aggrandizement; but it is also the inheritor of an avant-garde counter-tradition, an archive of strategies for dissolving the self-confidence of liberal rationality. If conservative paranoia tends to over-estimates contemporary art’s radical potential, Gogarty’s book seeks a version of contemporary art that would justify reactionary fears. 

The Marxist theorist Alberto Toscano has recently observed:

an ideal for the left might be to become what its enemies think it already is, namely a strategically ingenious and systematic endeavour to undermine white, Western, Christian, capitalist, patriarchal civilization across all institutions of society. 9

What We Do Is Secret can be read as a project along these lines, which is to say that it refuses to conform to what the electoral left defines as a ‘realistic’ political strategy. Clearly, it can be important to assess the balance of forces at play in a given situation (which is one sense in which the word ‘realistic’ is used) but it is also important to ask what realism and pragmatism can mean at a time when the liberal political consensus, and its ‘rational’ commitments, lurches toward endorsement of brutality. In the current political context gradualism, another seemingly realistic or pragmatic way of conceiving of social change, is also discredited. The prospect of climate disaster draws ever nearer in large part due to the gradualist delaying tactics employed by governments of the last fifty years. How then is social change to be envisaged realistically? There is no space here to broach this question, but one can observe that it plays an important role in the disorienting political debates of recent times. Gogarty’s book aims to make a virtue of disorientation. 

Having said that, Gogarty is not irrationalist in her methods. In fact the polemic against liberal rationality depends on a conjunctural historical analysis, which draws on Frankfurt school thinkers, cultural studies and Marxist ‘history from below’. The book focuses on the period from the global financial crisis through the era of Trump and Brexit, roughly from 2008 to 2020, concluding with the onset of the pandemic and the global ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that emerged in the wave of George Floyd’s murder. This historical frame is introduced in the first chapter through discussion of post-Internet art, a loose critical formation that emerged after 2008. Post-Internet art was primarily known for, in the words of J.E.Sebastian, ‘very forcefully and persuasively saying nothing’,  unlike the activist art that came to prominence around the same time.10 Even so, if only by virtue of its attention to the online networks that formed a crucible for the coming disruption, post-Internet art registered some of the coalescing forces that would shake the edifice of liberal democracy. 

“There is no reason for leftists to be squeamish about exploring the ‘garish illegitimacy’ of conspiracy theories, for what they might teach about effective resistance against the ruses of liberal rationality, and the irrational capitalist order that it serves.”

Gogarty defines post-Internet art as a term used to group together a wide range of artistic practices ‘that incorporate in their form and/ or content modes of information delivery, relationality, or representation that emerged after the internet’.11 It is worth summarizing some of the wild antinomies of relationality that the internet mediated after 2008. The imposition of destructive austerity measures after the financial crisis coincided with the rollout of participation in social media networks and use of video-enabled mobile phones. The everyday violence deployed by the state was more visible than ever before, in user-generated video of encounters with police and border regimes. As the neoliberal hegemony unraveled the slews of data that overwhelm rational norms online circulated unsettling truths about the liberal order, as well as ‘alternative facts’. Mass political mobilization became easier to organize (for the left and the right, as well as a confused mêlée in between). As everyone now knows, the goal of big Tech is to lock users into an attention labyrinth, creating powerful new tools to ‘design’ behaviour in the process; however successful it may have been in building the advertising revenue of social media platforms, this project has had unintended consequences in the political sphere. 

In Gogarty’s telling, post-Internet art mediated these developments via two broad stylistic tendencies, one reactionary and the other with emancipatory implications.12 The right-wing combined celebration of irrationalism with ironic mimicry of the marketing techniques of luxury brands, a nasty ideological cocktail which Gogarty suggests pre-ordained a drift toward the alt-right. The reaction was evident in a notorious show entitled “71822666”, (the title of a 4Chan thread that predicted Trump’s victory)  held in 2016 at LD50 in London, a gallery closely associated with post-Internet art. The show comprised statements by online neo-fascists, all of whom were identified as ‘artists’, and even showed the video manifesto of mass-shooter Eliot Rodgers.13 Gogarty was involved in protests mobilized against the show; however, she also defends the destabilizing excess, inanity and disorienting additive structure in what she judges to be the progressive wing of post-Internet art. Whereas ironic mimicry tended to affirm the status quo, ironic excess (often expressed in an irrationalist montage) was also capable of evoking, in Gogarty’s words, ‘a world full of gaps in which something new might still emerge’.14

Defenders of even-handedness and common decency in the UK government have, in the meantime, moved asylum seekers onto prison barges and drawn up plans to send them to Rwanda.”

In the second chapter, Gogarty addresses what she dubs ‘legibly political art’, a category that includes artists and collectives including Trevor Paglen, Olaf Eliasson, Hito Steyerl, Metahaven, Zach Blas and Forensic Architecture. This is a heterogenous grouping, but they have in common an international exhibiting profile, and, for Gogarty, they all produce ‘cognitive maps’: a term that Frederic Jameson popularized in the 1980s to describe leftist attempts to make sense of capitalist power in its increasingly complex globalized networks.15 This work is ‘legible’ in so far as it uses documentary methods with didactic intent to glean information from the stultifying immensity of data available online. For Gogarty, this strategy is deeply flawed, because it ‘chimes with a liberal imaginary’.16 The search for facts becomes a deferral of action. Her primary target is Trevor Paglen, whose long-range photographs of government run ‘black sites’, provide viewers glimpses of locations revealed by data leaks to be where state power is operationalized. Gogarty argues that Paglen’s work heightens the mystique of forces of techno-domination, rather than showing how these forces might be opposed.17

The question of what kind of action is enabled by political art is an important one, often posed by artists who are critical of the way ‘the political’ coolly drifts in and out of art debates without apparent consequence. For example, art activists of the IIAAF (Imagination of Anti-National, Anti-Imperialist Feelings) initiated a year-long campaign called StrikeMoMa, in New York in 2021, calling for the abolition of the Museum of Modern Art. This group argues that MoMA (and by extension contemporary art itself) is an imperialist edifice of soft counterinsurgency, which absorbs and neutralizes critical energies. It proposes in place of art a project of militant political education, focused on interconnected struggles around the globe, including in New York, Palestine, the Dominican Republic and Columbia.18 Gogarty also advocates militant forms of knowledge but, whereas StrikeMoMA calls for art’s abolition, Gogarty does not. Her preferred method is to destabilize routine conceptions of artistic politics through spiraling hermeneutic enquiry, which finds routes into political and historical questions via works of art. Although Gogarty intends this project to be allied to activism, there is a question of whether it can culminate in or incite political action any more than, for example, Trevor Paglen’s work does. 

In the third chapter, Gogarty’s method is demonstrated in a reading of the retrospective of the US artist Cady Noland at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt in 2019, and in the final chapter, through London and Amsterdam based artist Ima-Abasi Okon’s exhibition at the Chisenhale gallery in the same year. Gogarty’s meditation on Okon’s work is both conjunctural and personal, reflecting on her own experience of the bleak Conservative victory in the UK General election of 2019, the onset of the pandemic and the demands for racial justice inspired by George Floyd’s murder. Gogarty reveals that What We Do is Secret is a response to the call from poet Sean Bonney (who also died in 2019) for work that is ‘densely packed with revolutionary code’.19  Okon’s allusive and intentionally ‘irrationalist’ installation-based work is read by Gogarty as a talisman that speaks to the way that mutual aid, and insurrectionary uprisings, resist the ‘common sense’ of capitalist society by advocating for spaces in which to ‘breathe together’ (conspire). In her reading of Okon’s work, Gogarty insists that its irrationalism points in the direction of ‘transformative militancy…a request for commitment without any promise of what the commitment will deliver’.20 This claim begs the question of when a call to political commitment has ever come with a promise of what it will deliver? (Although radical political movements usually communicate a vision, they are not transactional, so there is no guarantee that this vision can be achieved). Although Gogarty’s reading of Okon’s work is rich, the attempt to link it to an irrationalist activist politics is cursory. 

Disruptive protest of any kind has been criminalized, with some climate protestors now receiving harsh custodial sentences for briefly interrupting rituals of the capitalist death drive.”  

It is interesting to compare the versions of artistic militancy proposed by Gogarty and StrikeMoMa, given that they have so much in common on a political level. Whereas StrikeMoMA proposes a militancy of direct action and collective learning via the demand to abolish MoMA, Gogarty approaches militancy via subversion of the codes of art criticism, as part of a project ro expand our conception of artistic politics and to register the urgency of this moment. Clearly, StrikeMoMA is more overtly activist than Gogarty’s writerly project, but it is tied to art nonetheless, if only via the idea that MoMA is important enough to deserve the effort required to abolish it. Both projects are alternative responses to the changed political situation of art. This situation is altered, in part, because the tactics employed by an insurgent right, far from demonstrating that cultural politics are outdated, operate mostly on cultural terrain, seeking to discredit or demonize progressive politics.   

From Russia to the United States, from India to Italy and Great Britain, the right attacks what it frames as excesses of ‘woke’ liberalism. Toscano notes that for ethno-nationalists and exponents of what he terms ‘late Fascism’‘the contagious desire for a better life beyond hierarchies of racial identity and sexual normality is an illness, a social pathology’ and a ‘deviant dystopia’.21 The attacks mounted by the right against minorities are intended to encourage violence, but also to garner support for the rolling back of civil liberties and for imposition of increasingly brutal border regimes. In response, politicized artists are clearly right to mobilize in support of intersectional networks of resistance, looking beyond the electoral horizon of politics which is ever more narrowly nationalist. For some on the Left, politicized art is a gratuitous side-show to real struggle. If this judgment is  unavoidable at times, even so, it is a mistake to resort to it automatically. The work of politicized artists registers changing possibilities for political action in a period of global upheaval. Politicized and activist art certainly has to negotiate contradictions, not least because of its relationship to the liberal art institution, but it also invites us to reflect on the way political action is construed and evaluated. 

What We Do is Secret is strongest when it uses a reflection on the conspiracy theory to expose the emptiness of rationalist posturing. For example, Gogarty rejects those arguments from the Left, such as the one advanced by Angela Nagle in her 2017 book Kill All Normies, that blame the rise of the alt-right on exponents of online identity politics.22 Although it is understandable that a disorienting succession of crises, and defeats for the Left, should lead to calls for a return to class politics, nonetheless, there is a problematic tendency for class to be understood in nationally bounded, socially-conservative terms, rather than as an intersectional and transnational project of solidarity. Invocations of class easily drift, therefore, into what Toscano has termed a ‘malevolent ersatz’ form of class politics which gravitates toward right-wing talking points.23 That is certainly the case for Nagle, for example, who argues the left should support tighter border controls to win elections in the US.24

“If conservative paranoia tends to over-estimates contemporary art’s radical potential, Gogarty’s book seeks a version of contemporary art that would justify reactionary fears.”

If Gogarty is right to challenge assumptions about what counts as ‘realistic’ or ‘rational’ in the political sphere, there are places in the book where the attack on liberal rationality misses its mark. For example, Gogarty includes Forensic Architecture in her criticism of  ‘legibly political art’, a tendency that is accused of  being ‘aligned with mainstream liberal politics’.25  Forensic Architecture is a collective that makes digital reconstruction of situations where abuses of state power are suspected to have taken place. Some projects have been used in legal proceedings to hold to account state actors, including a recent one that identifies cases where European border forces have deliberately and illegally set migrants adrift in the Aegean sea, so that currents take them back into Turkey’s territorial waters.26

Obviously, Forensic Architecture works within a liberal institution, the legal system (either through national or international legal frameworks), to expose state-sponsored brutality. But Gogarty’s writerly strategy operates within and subverts art criticism, another liberal institution. It would seem therefore to be unreflective for Gogarty to criticize Forensic Architecture because the group is not militantly opposed to participating in institutions of liberal democracy. The group, after all, does show how states circumvent their moral and legal responsibilities, and its research is politically useful. If irrationalism has strategic uses, then, it is nonetheless important that the rejection of liberal rationality should not be confused with rejection of rationality as such.  The legacy of Enlightenment, understood in its most radical sense, made possible not only the deceptions practiced by liberal reason, but also emancipatory and critical thought in all its diversity. When liberals claim monopoly over reasonableness, they do so in order to obscure reason’s emancipatory promise. As Horkheimer and Adorno noted, although reason is instrumentalized to serve repressive ends, it is also always ‘the servant which the master cannot control at will’.27

  1. Gogarty What We Do is Secret: Contemporary Art and the Antimonies of Conspiracy. Berlin: Sternberg, 2023, p.21. ↩︎
  2. Gogarty, What We Do is Secret p.139-140 ↩︎
  3.  Gogarty focuses on the extended constitutional crisis around Brexit brought this to the fore in British politics, although she notes, following Sita Balani, that these are symptomatic inheritance of a British political exceptionalism, derived from Empire and colonialism. Gogarty, p. 143 ↩︎
  4.  Gogarty, pp.25-26. ↩︎
  5.  Gogarty draws on the work of Michael Cohen, Frederic Jameson, Timothy Meller and Sianne Ngai to problematize the conspiracy theory. ↩︎
  6.  Gogarty, pp.23-24. ↩︎
  7.  Gogarty, p.22; pp. 28-29; pp. 88-91; also discusses property in relation to Brenna Bhandar and Alberto Toscano’s analysis of the racial implications of liberal possessive individualism pp. 106-107. ↩︎
  8.  See: David Lloyd, Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics New York: Fordham University press, 2019, pp.29-33. ↩︎
  9.  Alberto Toscano Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis. London: Verso, 2023p.113 ↩︎
  10.  J.E. Sebastian cited in Gogarty, p.58 ↩︎
  11.  Gogarty p.39 ↩︎
  12.  Gogarty p.44 ↩︎
  13.  Gogarty pp. 41-44 ↩︎
  14.  Gogarty P.68 ↩︎
  15.  Gogarty, p ↩︎
  16.  Gogarty p.80 ↩︎
  17.  Gogarty p.93 ↩︎
  18.  IIAAF Strike MoMA Reader (undated) StrikeMoMAReader_Final..pdf ( ↩︎
  19.  Bonney cited in Gogarty, p.144. ↩︎
  20.  Gogarty p. 159 ↩︎
  21.  Toscano p. 154. ↩︎
  22.  Nagle cited in Gogarty pp. 45-46 ↩︎
  23. Toscano cited in Gogarty pp 45-46. See also: Toscano p.2 where he refers to the ‘malevolent and ersatz form’ of class politics. ↩︎
  24.  First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Collapse of the Sanders Campaign and the “Fusionist” Left – American Affairs Journal ↩︎
  25.  Gogarty P.78 ↩︎
  26.  Drift-backs In The Aegean Sea ← Forensic Architecture ( ↩︎
  27.  Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University press, 2002. p. 29 ↩︎