The strange case of the ‘alt-right’ art gallery

Should art galleries try to debate controversial politics (and suffer the rage of protesters)?

By J.J. Charlesworth

Detail, 71822666 exhibition, LD50 Gallery. Image via facebook Installation view, 71822666 exhibition, LD50 Gallery. Image via facebook

At the beginning of February, the London artworld’s social-media accounts began to throb with mutterings about the exhibition programme of LD50, a small start-up art gallery in the east London borough of Hackney. The ever louder comments and discussions picked up on details of a programme of talks the gallery had put on during the summer of 2016, under the loose theme of the ‘alt-right’. These talks, however, were presentations by individuals who were themselves well-known proponents of neo-conservative and neo-reactionary (or ‘NRx’) right-wing views. Those listed in the series were the right-wing bloggers Peter Brimelow, Brett Stevens, Iben Thranholm and Mark Citadel, along with the eccentric British philosopher Nick Land. Aside from these talks, LD50 was putting on exhibitions of young artists of a distinctly post-internet flavour, as well as some more established artists such as John Russell and the Chapman Brothers. Earlier in the year the gallery had hosted another set of presentations about genetics, genome technology and transhumanism.

The series of ‘alt-right’ talks had gone unnoticed until last month, when social media started to circulate the story that what had taken place in 2016 was a ‘conference’ of ‘fascist’ speakers. This wasn’t exactly surprising, since invites to the talks had been billed as ‘a conference on Reactionary and Neoreactionary thought’. Soon, a campaign to ‘shut down LD50’ had been set up, which declared that ‘over the past year the gallery has hosted high-profile speakers from the American “alt-right”, including people who promote white supremacy, eugenics and violence against immigrants. Materials produced by the gallery have consistently drawn on fascist traditions ranging from 1930s Nazi aesthetics to contemporary “neo-reactionary” politics.’

Alongside the Shutdown campaign, a long post on the anonymous Horrible GIF blog and a similar article on berated a supine and gullible hipster artscene, mired in post-internet irony, for being so white, apolitical and careerist that it remains uncritical of – or even vaguely fascinated by – the appearance of far-right ideas and speakers in an art gallery. Before long the story had been picked up by news outlets worldwide. By mid-February, the campaign to shut down the gallery had announced a protest march to the gallery, which took place on 25 February, attended by anti-fascists, Black Lives Matter campaigners and others.

The campaign against LD50 and its director, Lucia Diego, is, at the very least, disturbing for the way it mixed a lack of information with wild assumptions about the intentions of the gallery and the person behind it. Nobody, not least those behind the Shutdown campaign or the news sites who reported the campaign, seems to have bothered to get closer to the facts, other than the usual frenzied Google-searching: the Independent and The Guardian, for example, both implied that the gallery had convened 'a Neo-Reaction conference', suggesting a physical gathering of speakers at the gallery. But the ‘conference’ Diego was supposed to have staged was nothing of the sort. Speaking to Diego on the phone this week, she confirmed that of the programme of five talks, which happened weekly through July and August 2016, three were skype calls (by Land, Brimelow and Thranholm), while the two others were recordings of texts by the speakers, read out by speech-synthesiser digital ‘avatars’ onscreen.

Still, the question remains why Diego would want to give such speakers the opportunity to speak in her gallery, virtually or otherwise. Diego explains that she had wanted to include in the gallery’s programme an attention to wider themes and subjects that interested her beyond the artworld – in May 2016 the gallery had hosted a series of talks on genetics, with academic speakers discussing epigenetics, evolution theory and the future of genome editing. With the rising popularity of the Trump election campaign in the US, Diego says, she started to be curious about what was driving it. The artworld in London, she notes, didn’t seem to be paying attention to the combination of the Internet and right-wing politics that appeared to be the basis for the ‘alt-right’.

In the statement that now fronts her otherwise closed-down website, Diego argues that the gallery ‘attempted to explore contemporary discourse’. ‘In recent months we found ourselves increasingly interested in the political ruptures in the West… This informed our last exhibition and our series of talks that were framed around the alt-right and NRx discourses’. Elsewhere she argues that ‘our position has always been that the role of art is to provide a vehicle for the free exploration of ideas, even and perhaps especially where these are challenging, controversial or indeed distasteful for some individuals’.

Speaking to Diego, it’s easy to note her frustration and antagonism towards an artworld where certain political perspectives and opinions seem to dominate. If, she says, you express any dissent from the opinion that, for example, Trump must be the worst thing ever, you lay yourself open to the ire and abuse of everyone around you. Indeed, Diego’s problems started when, in a facebook thread she expressed dismay at MoMA’s re-hang of its galleries, in response to Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration ban; in that message post, she hazarded the comment ‘… I don’t know…this is just my opinion…I’m not even sure if I disagree with the Muslim ban…’ That line in particular prompted a snowball of criticism from other users, eventually leading to the calls for closing the gallery. Whether this opinion revealed, as critic Morgan Quaintance would have us believe in the current issue of Art Monthly, Diego’s ‘long-suspected support for white supremacy’ seems like an exaggeration, to say the least. Whether provoking debate justifies the closure of your gallery by protesters is another matter.

It may be that Diego is in fact a secret white-supremacy sympathiser. Or she might just have been very naïve about how other people would take her attempt to work out what she thinks about these issues. Either way, Diego’s mistake has been to assume that this kind of ‘free exploration of ideas’ is acceptable in a culture where what is unacceptable to some – culturally, politically, personally – has come to encompass an ever-widening spectrum of opinion, a culture in which the free expression of controversial opinions is now mocked by activists who see the suppression of what they disagree with as their only goal. It’s a culture in which no-platforming and ‘safe-spaces’ are the norm on college campuses and elsewhere – where speakers with positions as different as gay activist Peter Tatchell, feminist Germaine Greer and alt-right pin-up Milo Yiannopoulos can all be ‘disinvited’ from talking to college audiences, for expressing opinions that one or other interest group has deemed unacceptable or threatening.

Clearly the ideas and opinions of the speakers Diego invited are bigoted, divisive, often racist and, more often than not, idiotic and deeply delusional about the state of the world. Reading Brett Stevens’s or Mark Citadel’s weird views on civilisation and democracy, or on gender distinctions, it’s hard not to laugh at their monomania. In others, such as those of Land, there’s a profoundly dystopic view of human beings and human society, which looks forward to a world beyond the old politics of democracy and liberty to a post-human future where biotech and AI rule.

These are sinister and ugly views of the world and of human beings and society. But if Diego has noticed anything, it’s that this culture of misanthropy and paranoia is already out there, coursing through the Internet, because in the physical world – the world of art galleries or lecture halls – it has no place to exist. The alt-right’s dismal rise, its connection to the blogosphere and 4chan chat-threads, its traction among disillusioned and introverted young white males and so on, is internet-based because this is where ideas such as these have gone to hide. And yet, 30 years of no-platform policies and dismissing free speech by those on the ‘left’ have been a complete failure in countering their influence.

Diego now says that, since the protests, she has had to give up on the gallery for fear of harassment, and is staying with friends on police advice not to return to her home. We can choose to believe her or not, or care or not. Diego’s views, about immigration, Trump or whatever, have made her a scapegoat for those who would rather no discussion was had about any of these subjects or issues, and who would rather pretend that disagreeable ideas can simply be run off the streets, with the hope maybe, of turning the whole of London, or the artworld, into one huge ‘safe-space’. In reality, it will do nothing to counter the ideas that now course through the private circuits of net-culture.

It’s worth noting here that in their attempts to decipher LD50’s programme and motives, bloggers like those on Horrible GIF and Metamute, and critics like Quaintance, make the connection between ‘alt-right’ culture and post-internet art. Post-internet art, they argue, is white, privileged, cynical, nihilistically ironic and apolitical. These commentators are missing the point. The misanthropic and dystopic character of much net-culture and post-internet art, its ironic nihilism, is more to do with the pessimistic giving-up on the possibility that any position is truer than any other, and that network technology now rules how people think and understand the world around them. To lay on a final, bitter, non-cynical irony to the controversy of LD50 and its closure: it was the culture of social-media, its tendency to snowball hearsay and rumour – its capacity to feedback to people the interpretation of events they themselves want to believe, and people’s apparently growing incapacity to talk to each other, to deliberate what is true or false – that turned the interpretation of facts, artworks and the ambiguities and an individual’s motivations, into a witch-hunt. It will keep happening.