Money must be made

by Jason Koxvold, from Wilderness of Mirrors, by Chase Barnes

How can the photograph help us visualise the invisible forces which shape culture? As we continue our shift away from the physical — a world of things, which we can see, touch, and understand - and into the digital, these questions become more salient than ever. Wilderness of Mirrors attempts to make sense of these divergent realities, their scale impossible to grasp even as they affect every facet of our private and shared experiences.

Made over three years, during the tenure of the 45th President of the United States, the project observes the confluence of governmental and economic power in the northeast of the United States, centring on the manufactured political spectacle of Washington, DC. Chase Barnes’s photographs exhibit a kaleidoscopic visual vocabulary, reflecting and recombining a broad range of cultural references that encompass the myriad forms of imagemaking in the 21st century, from photography and film to video games and Japanese anime, all of which may be shared and reappropriated in altered contexts. As Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa writes in Some Itineraries of the Image, “To speak of the reproducible image in this moment is to address not only photographs, films and videos, but screenprints and billboards: GIFs, memes, and emojis—a wide array of technically mediated scriptovisual forms that together constitute and remake our visual landscape, and our image economies.”1 

Much of the work in Wilderness of Mirrors pictures the infrastructure which simultaneously enables our privileged lives, and surveils us for the benefit of the corporate world and its governmental proxies, hiding in plain sight as we glide past, seemingly oblivious to its presence. We find ourselves in Barnes’s photographs, too, necks craned downwards, staring at our phones in half-smiles, or half-irritation, or both. In one photograph, a person sits on a concrete structure of the type placed onto coastal sands to slow the process of erosion; their body language suggests a certain dejection as they photograph a pretty sunset, to be shared on social media and appended with a meaningful hashtag like #mindfulness, to better ensure that others can discover and like it. The image overflows with hidden data recording the precise moment the electronic shutter fires: its location in physical space, the parameters of the camera in that fleeting instant. Artificial intelligence analyses the image, grouping it with similar images in a cavernous data centre located near to low-cost electricity and labour, silently curating: an invisible hand alighting on an invisible chin for around 72.51 milliseconds,2 with the desired result of eventually selling something back to them.

The rate of the production of images, each file with its associated metadata, has long exceeded any human capacity to comprehend or analyse, even as our lived experience is predominantly shaped and governed by visual culture.3 Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman describe this as hyperaesthesia – “the state in which experience overloads or collapses, and, as a result, sensation stops making sense.”4  While machines are able to infer patterns across trillions of images, humans can only feel bewilderment in the face of what Wolukau-Wanambwa describes as “a profound intensification and acceleration of audiovisual stimuli in every precinct of social space, and under the auspices of an ever more algorithmically astute set of economic and political interests.”5

These interests are at the core of Barnes’s work; the title of this book refers to a 1976 quote attributed to James Jesus Angleton, former head of the CIA’s counter-intelligence division, regarding Soviet psychological operations methodologies. He states, “It is my firm conviction that the existence of the Department of Disinformation has had much to do with the disarray of what I would call unity in the West… it presents to the West by the various themes that it promulgates what I call a wilderness of mirrors. They can have you believe whatever they desire you to believe.”6 Several decades later, we can still observe these events, as the Russian company Glavset (formerly known as the Internet Research Agency) and Macedonian troll farms achieve empirically measurable success in altering public perceptions—but also in our own information warfare operations, which we deploy against foreign nationals, as well as our own citizens.7

The deliberate propagation of false information into our media ecosystem has become increasingly commonplace; those seeds of distrust metastasise into larger colonies of disinformation. To take an example from one of our current crises: in 2022, all Americans have access to vaccines that are broadly safe and effective against COVID-19; we have it in our power to eradicate the virus that has killed millions and crippled economies. Then how, and why, have we failed to do so? Individuals and groups continue to spread false claims of side effects — in faked photographs of official government correspondence, perhaps, or more recently in videos of women convulsing after receiving the vaccine. The assertions are usually simplistic grifts that are easily debunked by independent fact-checkers: “PolitiFact wanted to verify that Desselle took the vaccine and follow up with medical professionals about what might have caused her symptoms. Griner declined to say where his mother received the vaccine, where she was admitted to the hospital or which doctors she spoke with.”8 These acts suggest a kind of tribalism; the desire to kill people whom we might never meet, by intentionally releasing misinformation, in the form of viral videos and falsified imagery, into the world.

Our recent history is perhaps characterised by levels of absurdity so concentrated that it has become nearly impossible to separate truth from fiction. As if to demonstrate this, the photographer Jonas Bendiksen, in his project The Book of Veles, chronicled the lives of the inhabitants of a Macedonian town who had replaced lost industrial work with jobs manufacturing fake news. “The entire time I was writing these stories, I was always thinking ‘Oh my God, who would believe this kind of crap?’”, commented one subject.9 Later, Bendiksen admitted to fooling the photographic world: his subjects were, in fact, characters rendered using computer graphics;10 his project had been a fabrication. 

Lest we forget, the erosion of trust in the mainstream media is not without justification; it would not have been possible without the participation of the media in their loss of credibility. The New York Times notoriously supported the invasion of Iraq, based on fabricated intelligence.11 It is less well-known that the Central Intelligence Agency played a direct role in feeding misinformation to the editors and obscuring stories which might negatively impact operations,12 directly influencing the opinions of the high-value, well-educated consumers whose attentions the newspaper proudly offers to the advertisers who keep the Times in business. 

The long arm of the CIA has, for decades, also held sway over the entertainment industry.13 We should bear in mind that this is perhaps of equal or greater importance to influencing the news; while viewers might believe entertainment to be fictional, we often nonetheless internalise it as fact. Thus, when Tom Clancy’s fictional character Jack Ryan goes to Venezuela, he finds himself taking “an uncomfortable turn towards right-wing talking points”;14 or when we see Hamra Street in Beirut portrayed in Homeland, it resembles a dusty, apocalyptic vision of the Middle East, complete with Burqa-clad women clutching copies of the Qur’an, rather than the cafes and sushi restaurants that one would find in the real Hamra Street. The first scene in Zero Dark Thirty is a stylised recontruction of the events of 9/11; the second scene is of a suspected Al Qaeda financier being tortured at length by a CIA agent — a short walk to engender support for war crimes. Each of these pieces of ‘entertainment’ received the support of the CIA and Department of Defense.

In some cases these interventions are so surreal as to strain the bounds of credulity. While impossible to verify due to the clandestine nature of the agency, The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe asserts that there is a strong likelihood that the CIA wrote the Cold War anthem Wind of Change for the West German band The Scorpions, and then provided material support to propel it into popular culture in the Soviet Union and around the world.15

While clandestine cultural interventions might achieve specific mission objectives in the short term, the cumulative effect appears to be the creation of a media ecosystem that is grounded more in fiction than reality, with predictably catastrophic results. As Adam Curtis describes in the film Hypernormalisation, “the Soviet Union became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real, because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart. But everybody had to play along and pretend that it was real, because no one could imagine any alternative. One Soviet writer called it Hypernormalisation. You were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it.”16 All of this is essential context as we locate ourselves in Wilderness of Mirrors, which Barnes describes as “an attempt to visualize unseen mechanisms that work to manage and restructure belief.”

In many of Barnes’s photographs, white men lurk in the shadows, obscured by pillars, or wearing plain-clothes tactical gear. It’s impossible to discern if they are agents of the state, or cosplaying civilians enamoured with the idea of appearing to be. The men are often posed awkwardly, like broken non-player characters in a computer game, or glitches in our collective simulation. Barnes presents the lens of technology as a filter through which to view the world; life seen through the smartphone, mediated by dysfunctional algorithms based on your browsing history, purchasing habits, the content of your emails. 

To my eye, it appears that Barnes considers this constructed reality to be a semi-permeable layer; certain images convey a sense of nature resisting the man-made — or is it trapped? An inconveniently placed tree protrudes through a chain-link fence as it holds back the natural world. Later, we encounter a similar fence, but this one has been forcibly breached with wire cutters, a gaping oval made by hands unknown, offering an invitation to the forbidden. 

Often, these visual metaphors draw inspiration from the Surrealist movement, as well as more contemporary popular culture. A carelessly discarded protective cellphone case melts under the heat of the sun, Daliesque against steel and concrete street furniture. Its twisted shape, in juxtaposition with the rigid forms that surround it, seems to imply a distortion of our physical reality that is central to this work.

Much of this work deals with the backstage side of politics; looking behind the scenes, we’re treated to a view of the pomp and ceremony that makes American statecraft out of stagecraft. In one image, a staircase made of plywood and 2x4 lumber leads to nowhere. It’s a small step from there to the hastily assembled conference registration for a Goldman Sachs event in Washington, D.C.; the same bank, of course, that underwrites the satisfying heft of your laser-cut Apple Credit Card; the same bank that continues to operate a “revolving door” with the US Government, regardless of which political party is in power.17 The same bank that you and I underwrote with our tax dollars in 200818 while millions of Americans lost their homes and the planet was plunged into financial crisis. 

Photographs like these are a stark reminder that there is very little demarcation between policy and capital. It brings to mind a moment from 2018, at Lockheed Martin’s headquarters in Crystal City, VA, where I watched a large group of senior officers of the British Royal Navy being treated to a corporate buffet before a demonstration of the exceptional lethality and ease of operation of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (unit cost, $81 million; the UK planned to order 13819). Same energy.

Corporation. Incorporation. The formal, legal fabrication of a body out of disparate parts. It’s not hard to imagine how companies slowly but surely purchased for themselves the same legal rights as human beings, despite some opposition from the Supreme Court and elected officials,20 a further abstraction of physical reality which opened the doors for greater corporate control of the body politic.

None of this would be possible without powerful symbolism: totems which we hold dear, the very building blocks of identity that are laid in place for Americans in early childhood. In one of Barnes’s images, the US Capitol glows forth from a large plasma display; deprived of dimensionality, flattened to an idea that can be broadcast out into the world where it can be revered, held close to our hearts. This photograph was made some four years before the infamous attempted insurrection of January 6th, 2021. That event was, of course, seemingly impossible, and deeply reminiscent of countless moments in cinema where white male protagonists declare their oath to defend the United States from all enemies - foreign, and domestic. Was life imitating art? Had we lost our ability to differentiate between images on a screen, and events in the real world? 

Considerable critical research exists to support this notion. As Anthony Everett writes in The Nonexistent, “Fictions which have a visual component, such as plays and puppet shows and films and television shows, will typically generate imaginings either in something like the sort of direct manner that our observations of real events so or in the manner that our consumption of factual documentaries does.”21 He continues: “in the simplest instances we will imagine that we are directly perceiving real people and real events; we will treat our perceptions as if they were simply perceptions of reality.”22

If this has been the case throughout the history of fictional performance, how do we explain our present predicament? Perhaps the answer is simply one of volume. The signal-to-noise ratio is so overwhelmingly out of balance that it seems no longer possible to make a valid claim to the accuracy of any statement. The same techniques that were employed by Donald Trump’s army of social media bots are used by the Russian state actors who supported his campaign, as by the British corporation who manipulated the public around Brexit for the profit of their clients,23 as by the US military in Middle East PSYOPs. Real humans internalise these messages and further propagate them until a kind of critical mass is achieved and they become truth, or some heavily abstracted version of it.

Barnes seems to approach Wilderness of Mirrors from the standpoint that we participate in our shared environment even while we are simultaneously aware of its inherent artifice; the representation of manipulation is one of the key components of his work, and equally, he is aware of his place in this ecosystem. In one image his 4x5 view camera looms, rendered blind by a satin dark cloth, cable release trigger hanging away from the body of the machine, evoking a magician’s trick, ready to be unveiled. Elsewhere, we find overexposed photographs of a security camera obscured by artificial flora, a perfunctory attempt to dazzle and distract.

When Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel made their seminal work Evidence using archival imagery from a massive library of photographs taken by the Department of Defense and its private partners, their heavily editorialised view into the machinations of the military-industrial complex appeared surreal and confounding, as if giving shape to the previously unseen. Barnes operates in a similar space, but in an era in which we have wilfully embraced our place in the landscape of militarised consumerism; the 2002 term “if you see something, say something” sounds positively quaint today. But we say very little of how rapidly and radically our own world is changing; as its form shifts above us, we look down into our handheld devices, trading privacy for convenience, nuance for oversimplification. So we fight tooth and nail amongst each other on a four year cycle, gridlocked by political theatre, seemingly unaware that neither of our two political parties is particularly distinct from the other. Meanwhile, the onward march of neoliberalism propels us all into greater inequality than we’ve seen in a century; our ideological cage fight is little more than a distraction from corporate profiteering and the unprecedented upwards redistribution of wealth.

And so the spectacle continues: cameras ready to roll, seats ready to fill. Money must be made, no matter what the cost.