15 February 2023 Investigations into the nature of truth and narrative in digital domains.
Using the digital universe’s seemingly infinite stream of content as his source material, Emmanuel Van der Auwera probes the role of technology in mediating relationships between individuals and the realities they occupy. His wide-ranging practice revolves around an interest in the limits of narrative and the role of mass media in the construction of truth. Increasingly, Van der Auwera has turned his gaze to the United States, fascinated by the facile rituals and consistent assaults on truth that emerge in the wake of the country’s all-too-frequent mass shootings. Van der Auwera’s films and installations are delicately unsettling in the ways that they exploit and transform consumption-focused content such as documentary footage and social media posts, often implicating the viewer in the process. In tandem with his participation in Finis Terrae in Antwerp, and on the heels of his first solo show in the United Kingdom at Edel Assanti, Emmanuel and I spoke about the stimuli that nourish his expansive practice.
Jonah Goldman Kay: You’ve described a moment in 2012 when your practice changed drastically. Can you tell me a bit about that shift and the instigating factors behind it?
Emmanuel Van der Auwera: Video was core to my early work, as was an interest in the dichotomy of documentary practices and the subjectivity offered by fiction. Then in 2012 I discovered a particular reaction-video trend where teenagers were recording themselves responding to a video of a murder. This video was a change in perspective: I understood the morbid curiosity of their interest and was fascinated with the way they bottled it up and exported it as new content.
In 2012, social media was still fairly primitive, and it was a strange new land with no rules. But this shift in perspective was happening that was perhaps comparable to the invention of writing or the discovery of linear perspective during the Renaissance. People were starting to measure themselves in relation to actual events, relating to and reframing reality around that. The reaction video was a perfect example.
This developed into broader questions concerning the camera’s ubiquity and the psychological relationship to narrative that emerges from the sense that we can control our presentation. From there, I started to look at questions of believability and authenticity along with the mediums that disseminate this information. This also drew me into cases where people depart entirely from reality, like the crisis-actor conspiracy theories I’ve been exploring recently.
JGK: What interests you about crisis-actor conspiracies?
EVDA: I’m perpetually interested in these gray zones that exist between different constructions of the world—between narrative fiction and documentary, virtual and physical reality, the gaze of the viewer and the work. I’m still unclear as to why I continue to return to the crisis-factory conspiracy, but I think one of the reasons is that the conspiracy is the brainchild of a kind of society of the spectacle as Guy Debord described it. In turn, the crisis-actor conspiracy requires the aestheticization of photojournalism to carry out its work. If you spend enough time with it, the theory provokes this almost philosophical reflection on the nature of the reality we experience.
JGK: A large amount of your work is focused on the US. I’m curious what drew you to the US as a subject and why it’s become such a consistent focus.
EVDA: I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s during the fall of the Berlin Wall when the US was arguably at one of its peaks. I felt like I was living on the outskirts of the empire. America is a dream that is tailored for exportation. It’s a consumable idea. I grew up consuming the American dream through its cultural products—Michael Jackson and Ghostbusters—but also ideological stances like the notion of the end of history.
Looking back, there’s a kind of futile irony to the belief that we were at the pinnacle of history, that with one more brush the room would be clean. So to go from that and watch 9/11, which showed that America was not actually impervious to attack, it did kind of kill that dream. More than that, the drama of the way the attacks were pulled off showed that turning horror into entertainment is not just an American pastime.
JGK: That someone else can play that game.
EVDA: Exactly. Image, which was for a long time the domain of American control, was weaponized against the US for maximum effect. Now there’s a sense of decline, which is tied to the fact that the American dream has been fulfilled in a sense. The US gifted the internet to the world, which helped globalize American culture. So now the country itself is no longer needed as its historical significance is assured.
JGK: I want to talk a bit about your visual language because it’s quite cutting. I see parallels here to the nihilistic attitude that permeates the online forums from which you draw your influences.
EVDA: It’s true; there’s a dark comedy to my work. I’m drawing on the assumption that at the center of our emotions we’re actually quite unfocused and violent. I think you see this clearly in the language used on these forums. When people post, the emotion isn’t even thought of; it’s just vomited onto the site. Social media is designed around emotion as a currency. There’s a demand to create impossible emotions through feats of editing and juxtaposition. You’ll get a saccharine video of a cute dog next to a video of slain children. Then you’ll switch to an article about how to create the perfect garden. All of this is happening within a highly surveilled ecosystem where your usage is monitored and commodified. There’s something inherently comedic in these intense, often disconnected displays of emotion.
Emmanuel Van der Auwera: Fire and Forget, installation view, Edel Assanti, London, 2022.
JGK: That dark comedy is really visible in The Death of K9 Cigo (2019), which I saw at your solo show in December at Edel Assanti.
EVDA: I was browsing Periscope before and after the Parkland shooting and realized that the footage of these tragic events would be an interesting entry point for an exploration of geographic place and documentary practice, though I wasn’t quite sure what it would be. I spent eleven months painstakingly investigating the content on there, but it took me another ten months to develop the narrative.
The film uses reactions to the shooting, media footage, and other videos taken by people who live around the area and parallels it with footage from a funeral for a K9 dog who was killed in action. Obviously there is a difference in severity between these two events; if you look at them separately, the drama of the K9 funeral is just absurd. But when you pit them against each other, the contrast between the shooting and the funeral for Cigo takes on a darkly comical element.
JGK: In traditional journalistic or documentary practice, you start with a thesis and shape your narrative around it. But what you did here, and in many of your other works, is the antithesis of that: you go in and collect material, allowing the narrative to emerge organically around you.
EVDA: It’s quite complex because in The Death of K9 Cigo there is a strong point of view. I was extremely present in the selection of the footage, and it was a very subjective process. I didn’t enter the project conceiving of it as a film about gun violence in America or how tragedies are pitted against each other. Maybe this would be closer to a journalistic approach. Instead, I adjusted the facts the way I saw fit. Of course, the film is playing on and questioning this notion of an objective narrative by using footage from a site where the content is user-generated.
Vilém Flusser brings this up in his writings on post-history where events start to bend themselves in order to be taken by the apparatus of the photojournalist or social media. There’s such a concerted attempt to try to shape a narrative that evidence starts to manifest accordingly because it wants to be captured in such a way.
JGK: These same concerns around documentary, surveillance, and the construction of narrative reemerge in Perfect Days (2022), a video work that’s currently on view at Finis Terrae in Antwerp.
EVDA: I started Perfect Days during the pandemic. I found this one metaverse that was a series of islands where you could explore freely. It was also used by corporations as a kind of virtual office. So a company could rent one of these islands and host events or meetings there. I got access to one of these islands and went around filming with my virtual avatar for around four months. Since they couldn’t see that I was recording on my end, I was basically spying on people’s conversations. It was a kind of documentary access you’d never get in the real world.
In places like this, much like in social media, there’s a kind of interconnected solitude. This is a strong axis of my work. Humans are social creatures and want to be closely tied to our peers. So we feed these tools that mediate those experiences, be it social media or a metaverse, to the detriment of ourselves and others. These platforms cultivate a longing for others but always keep you a step away from them.