"Does something like emancipatory propaganda exist – the language for an imagination of a society that is emerging, that is still in the making?" Travelling writer and journalist Chris Keulemans interviewed Jonas Staal about the exhibition project Steve Bannon: A Propaganda Retrospective
Last January, former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon stepped down as chairman of Breitbart News Network after a public break with President Donald Trump. A few weeks later, at Leiden University, Dutch visual artist Jonas Staal defended his dissertation on Propaganda Art from the 20th to the 21st Century. ‘This is not a thesis by a political scientist or an art historian’, he stated. ‘It is a thesis on propaganda art by a propaganda artist’.
In March, Bannon was interviewed in Rome, by Jason Horowitz of the New York Times. ‘Stephen K. Bannon leaned back in an armchair opposite a copy of a painting by an Italian old master and explained his modest efforts to build a vast network of European populists to demolish the Continent’s political establishment. “All I’m trying to be”, he said, “is the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement”’.
A few weeks later, Jonas Staal was present in Derik, a town in Northern Syria, at the inauguration of the people’s parliament that he and his team had designed and built together with the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava, which practices a form of ‘stateless democracy’, based on local self-governance, gender equality and communal economy. These two minds could hardly be farther apart. Still, both men might be called propaganda artists. Today, they clash, in an exhibition project, at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Bannon himself would certainly agree to have his work presented as art. ‘People have said I’m like Leni Riefenstahl’, he once claimed. ‘I’ve studied documentarians extensively to come up with my own in-house style. I’m a student of Michael Moore’s films, of Eisenstein, Riefenstahl. Leave the politics aside, you have to learn from those past masters on how they were trying to communicate their ideas.’
During his years in Hollywood, he produced 18 films, from the 1992 Sean Penn drama Indian Runner to the 1999 Anthony Hopkins Shakespeare adaptation, Titus. He handled distribution for the independent film company Wellspring Media. ‘Along the way’, Adam Wren wrote on Politico, ‘he also racked up nine directorial credits of his own, compiling a body of work replete with red-meat conservative documentaries. His oeuvre, a set of 9 films released from 2006 to 2016, included projects capturing the rise of the Tea Party, such as 2010’s Battle for America, 2012’s takedown of the Occupy movement, Occupy Unmasked, and finally, 2016’s Torchbearer.’
At the time of release, mainstream critics were mostly dismissive. Of In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed (2004), Lou Lumenick of the New York Post noted that it was ‘very much like Soviet propaganda’.
For Politico, Wren spent 13 bleary-eyed hours watching all nine Bannon documentaries. ‘Throughout all of the films, a Trumpian through line emerges. As you watch them, the seemingly disconnected strands of Trumpism—anti-illegal immigration, economic angst, frustration with “the Party of Davos”—form a cacophony that Bannon somehow marshals into a symphony. (…) Long before Trump announced his 2016 campaign, Bannon was staking out the political terrain that would later become the familiar geography of his boss’s presidential bid.’
Jonas Staal has submitted himself to the same bleary-eyed torture. On Torchbearer (2016), he writes:
‘Its core narrative is American political and religious exceptionalism, presenting the United States as the first country not founded on the desire for conquest, but by the desire of prosecuted European Christians to create a nation of religious worship and democratic human rights. Bannon claims that the Christian-democratic nation has suffered increasing corruption in the past decades by secular progressives, lower-class people of color terrorizing inner cities, and Islamist fundamentalist sleeper cells, and he argues that a great clash of civilizations is about to emerge. Accompanied by a threatening film score, a collage is presented to us of torture and executions perpetrated by the Islamic State and other fundamentalist groups, suggesting an ultimate confrontation between what the film frames as democratic American Christians and Islamic terrorism.
Although it’s hard to believe that Trump is in any way the example of the devout Christian-democratic leader that would head Bannon’s crusade, support for Trump among Christian-conservatives and evangelicals has been exceptionally high. Bannon’s mission to narrate an inevitable clash of civilizations and introduce Trump as the Christian-democratic warrior to fight it has proven successful, despite the fact that he no longer occupies a position in the White House. Bannon’s artistic construction of reality is the one we see emerging in politics under the name of Trumpism today.’
Trumpism is all over the media as it is. So why, I ask Staal a couple of weeks before the opening, should we visit Het Nieuwe Instituut to torture ourselves with Steve Bannon’s crusade? ‘Looking the other way collectively might be more tempting. But there is no way around it. Bannon is an important case of contemporary propaganda art that operates from within a democratic society. He succeeds in transforming his artistic imaginary into political reality, a normative reality, not only in the US but now in the international alt-right movement as well.’ Even now that he has lost his influential positions at the White House and Breitbart? Staal’s definition of propaganda is: the performance of power. What harm can the performance do when the puppet-master has lost his power?
‘This exhibition that I developed with curator Marina Otero Verzier, shows Bannon’s cultural and political work from the mid 90s to the present, including his role in Cambridge Analytica and his recent tour of Europe. Don’t underestimate what he and his ideas continue to be capable of today. Trump might be the hybrid, incoherent and incompetent version of what Bannon had in mind, but the ideology is still in place: in Bannon’s vision, this generation too must defend the Christian-nationalist free market against the liberal, cosmopolitan elite and against Islamist terrorism, just as earlier generations resisted Nazism and communism. Bannon remains one of the key propagandists of the 21st-century alt-right – although he is far from being the only one. As a filmmaker, venture capitalist, campaign manager and ideologue, he has always understood that propaganda only works if it performs the transformation of reality through as many different platforms as possible. That is why his recent admission that he just wants to be the infrastructure for the global populist movement is, in all its false modesty, so dangerous.’
The recent New York Times interview outlines that danger. During his stay in Europe, Bannon was based in Italy, where the elections swept two populist, ultranationalist and social-media driven parties into power: the Five Star Movement and Lega Nord. He headlined the Front National conference in France, introduced by Marine Le Pen. He had a ‘fascinating’ meeting with leaders of AfD, Germany’s far-right party. It is unclear whether he met Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in person, but Bannon called him a hero and ‘the most significant guy on the scene right now’.
In the US, Bannon said, he is creating a think tank to ‘weaponize’ populist economic and social ideas. ‘He sees that work spreading to Europe, where a proliferation of populist websites in the image of Breitbart News, either owned by him or others, will spread those ideas, under his guidance. As a final component, he wants to train an army of populist foot soldiers in the language and tools of social media. He said that the reason it was so important to get populist nationalist governments in place was to prepare for a coming clash of the great powers with an axis of ancient Turkish, Persian and Chinese civilizations.’
Now, Jonas Staal will face him in the arena that he knows best: the cultural institution. ‘Yes. Cultural institutes are facing the choice: do we just present art, or do we present art that aims to reshape our world? I think it is important for us to understand how 21st-century ultranationalism and the international alt-right operate and what visual language and infrastructures they use to construct their alternate reality. And not just to understand, but also to counter it. Here, it is Marina and I who are narrating, trying to tell a story through Bannon about the importance of propaganda and propaganda art today. Analyzing Bannon’s dominant narratives and their impact on our world today, is also a way to understand how to counter them and develop alternative narratives in our turn.’
Staal has countered, appropriated and subverted the work of ultranationalist propaganda artists before. The Geert Wilders Works, Freethinkers’ Space and Closed Architecture come to mind: based on the work of Dutch right-wing politicians. At the time, he met fierce criticism from within the art world. In the introduction to his thesis, he looks back:
‘The idea that art needs to be outside politics to be art is exactly what has led not only to its powerlessness, but also to its cynicism and devastating neoliberal nihilism. Even though ultranationalism strongly relies on cultural mythology and visual representation to propagate its core narratives, somehow we as artists were supposed to stay at a distance in order for our work to remain art, while our artistic competences were appropriated right before our eyes. This was the fundamental contradiction faced by engaged artists in the early 21st century in the Netherlands. Our politicians were turning increasingly into dubious artists and obscure actors – even filmmakers – but we, as artists, were not supposed to intervene for the sake of art’s perceived purity.
It increasingly became clear to me that exactly this narrative was the real propaganda at stake. Propaganda art was not the problem; it was the propaganda against propaganda art. The construction of reality was to be left to the adults in the room. Artists were supposed to be beautiful and shut up, summarized in the famous dictum Sois belle et tais-toi’.
The killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh triggered an attitude and a methodology that Staal has been developing ever since: ‘Is the imagination of art, our capacity to think, stage, compose, choreograph, and construct the world differently not of crucial importance for the opposition to the construction of ultranationalist social reality? And should our task as artists, as those who have trained and specialized in representation, not be to join forces with those who demand a different conception of society: a society not divided by ethnic or class warfare, but assembled through a common imagination of equity? To contribute to a defiant imagination of a different world, a world as real as we are able to imagine it to be – this is what began to crystallize for me as the clear artistic task ahead. It took the body of a murdered artist for me to realize that these words had to be uttered: I am a propaganda artist.’
A defiant imagination of a different world. The people’s parliament in Rojava is a proud example. ‘Its circular form emphasizes a communal politics, the surrounding pillars mention key terms from the Social Contract and the rooftop consists of fragments of flags of local political and social organizations. As such, the parliament is both a spatial manifesto of the Rojava Revolution, as well as a concrete space where its ideals are practiced on a day to day basis.’
And in the cultural institutions of this country, he not only deconstructs paranoid and destructive propaganda art such as Steve Bannon’s, as he does here at Het Nieuwe Instituut. Elsewhere, he also creates its radical opposite. Recently, the Van Abbe Museum opened the Museum as Parliament: a translation of the Rojava people’s parliament to the Studio in Eindhoven: ‘The parliament combines art and politics to transform the Studio of the museum into a new democratic space. Considering the crises that our existing Western democracies are facing, this provides a chance to imagine and practice new models of democracy through art.’
All too often, history leads us to believe that propaganda stems exclusively from dictatorships, says Staal. He is trying to open up this narrative. ‘Every system of power produces its own propaganda. Whether this is good or bad depends on what kind of power we’re dealing with. I have become interested in the question: does something like emancipatory propaganda exist – the language for an imagination of a society that is emerging, that is still in the making? That is what I aim to contribute to: movements working towards a new commonality across and beyond established boundaries. I believe in the potential of not just one, but many propagandas.’