5 Artists Discuss UFOs, Pizzagate, and the Conspiracy Theories That Fascinate Them

Alina Cohen
Sep 26, 2018 7:00PM

Peter Saul, Government of California, 1969. © Peter Saul. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

This summer, Twitter and Facebook banned posts from InfoWars in an attempt to restrict fake news on their platforms. Owned by Alex Jones, the media outlet has promoted zany, often offensive conspiracy theories—that the Sandy Hook shootings were staged, or that the government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. If such wacky ideas have recently been at the center of national conversation, they’ve long been on the minds of American artists.

Many creative practitioners have explored the tangled webs we weave to explain and interpret the world around us. “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” a new exhibition at the Met Breuer, on view through January 6, 2019, unites 70 artworks that address machinations both probable and dubious. From unanswered questions about John F. Kennedy’s assassination to Henry Kissinger’s murderous involvement in Chilean politics, the show delves into the scandals and conjectures that have long obsessed the public, as well as individual artists.


Artist Mike Kelley inspired the exhibition. In 1991, he lamented in an interview that scholars hadn’t yet delved into the topic of conspiracy. Met curators Douglas Eklund and Ian Alteveer began a discussion with him in 2010 about bringing the idea to fruition. Kelley died in 2012, leaving behind a legacy of fantastical installations, films, performances, sculptures, and more. His contribution to the Met Breuer show—Educational Complex (1995)—replicates the schools of his childhood and suggests the traumas we experience in such architectural spaces. Many of Kelley’s classmates from the California Institute of the Arts (Tony Oursler, Sue Williams, Jim Shaw, John Miller) are also included in the show.

The exhibition roster skews heavily male; studies have shown that men believe conspiracy theories at a greater rate than women (yet another reason to stop calling women “crazy”). The featured artists are also predominantly American. As novelist Jonathan Lethem writes in his catalogue essay, “Conspiracy is a truly American motif, since ours is a nation conceived—rigged up from available parts—by a gang of slave-owning freedom fighters whispering in candlelit rooms, exchanging frantic drafts of improbable manifestos.”

Below, five artists share the conspiracy theories that consume them.

Tony Oursler

In a recent panel discussion with John Miller at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,Tony Oursler, known for his trippy, cinematic video installations, said that one of his favorite conspiracy theories (or, at least, conspiratorial lines of inquiry) relates to Rudy Giuliani. A long-time Lower East Side resident, Oursler remembered when the former New York City mayor (who served from 1994 through 2001) helped curb the city’s drug trade. “He ended up representing the pharmaceutical company that was spreading OxyContin in the U.S.,” Oursler said, implying that though Giuliani’swork on behalf of the city effectively hurt the company, the former mayor then helped them while earning a significant salary.

Jim Shaw

Los Angeles–based artist Jim Shaw noted that his favorite conspiracy theories are communicated through manipulated news stories that reflect their propagators’ zany, often prejudiced worldviews. He offered the anti-Semitic theory that fraudster Bernie Madoff gave millions of his stolen dollars to the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Proponents of the conspiracy, he wrote to me via email, forget “that the deal with a pyramid scheme is that there never were any millions, but the need to construct an anti-Jewish version of a fraud that only hurt Jews requires a lot of bending over backwards.”

Pizzagate—the Internet myth (started on Twitter and spread via 4chan) that Democrats were running a child sex-trafficking ring from a Washington, D.C., eatery—also intrigues Shaw. He pointed out that the wild theory had serious and tragic implications: A gunman entered the pizza joint and opened fire. “The weirdest thing to me is that the scenario seems lifted from an actual conspiracy involving Republican operatives in Nebraska,” Shaw said, who used “photos of underaged kids engaged in acts with adult VIPs as blackmail, but with the party affiliation switched.” He was referring to a hoax that circulated back in the late 1980s, indicating that conspiracies can be replicated, and slightly altered, to meet the moment’s political needs.

John Miller

“Something that makes me laugh the most,” said John Miller, “is a headline from the Weekly World News: ‘UFO lands on Bourbon Street.’” (It was, apparently, even more colorful: “I’ll Land My UFO On Bourbon Street—On Fat Tuesday!” with the subheading “Alien Wants to Paint New Orleans Red.”)

Miller’s contribution to the Met exhibition focuses on a more insidious theory. His 1998 painting ZOG depicts Wheel of Fortune host Vanna White standing in front of the game show board. The revealed letters spell the acronym of the title, which stands for “Zionist Occupation Government,” a conspiracy that Jewish agents secretly control multiple international governments.

Adam Helms

Adam Helms often sources imagery from news archives for his haunting paintings, drawings, and prints. His favorite conspiracy (and the most absurd one he knows) revolves around inventive geography. “There are thousands of hours [of video] on YouTube of these wing nuts trying to give credence and evidence of the idea that the earth is flat,” he said.

He also mentioned that people monitor the International Space Station live feed from NASA, pointing out what they think are UFO sightings. Still, he said, such theories make him “want to believe.” At the core of many conspiracy theories is desire—in this case, to know that humans aren’t alone in the universe.

Samuel Levi Jones

Samuel Levi Jones, whose artwork often features deconstructed books, is fascinated with the conspiracy theory linking the suspicious recent deaths of holistic health practitioners to the FDA and big pharma. (Snopes has investigated the claim of interrelated deaths and found little evidence.) “These deaths were deemed accidental or natural causes,” Levi Jones explained, “but when connected, they allude to foul play from America’s healthcare industry, which has always cared more about maintaining wealth over patients’ health.” Recently, the artist began making paintings from deconstructed medical books to help drive the conversation about alternative healthcare.

“Generally speaking, I think a lot of people in our society put their faith in mainstream Western medicine,” Levi Jones said, “but I am greatly inspired by my experience with Eastern remedies like acupuncture and herbal cures.” Regardless of whether the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry are connected to the deaths, the latter certainly deserves extensive scrutiny for its role in the current opioid crisis.

Alina Cohen