Jonas Staal: Propaganda Station

Jonas Staal: Propaganda Station

At the center of Propaganda Station, Jonas Staal’s installation as the international guest of this year’s Jindřich Chalupecký Award, we can find the Propaganda School. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, this platform will host meetings with groups of experts, activists, and organizers with the goal of jointly analyzing the tools and forms of contemporary propaganda as well as experimenting and educating ourselves in methods of (counter)propaganda.

Jonas Staal is an internationally acclaimed Dutch artist and this year’s international guest of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award, for which he has created the project Propaganda Station.

Propaganda is often presented as a relic from the totalitarian past. Only in the case of contemporary dictatorships, such as those of Putin or Kim Jong-un, is the term still used. But as the project Propaganda Station by artist and propaganda researcher Jonas Staal shows, democracy is not free from propaganda either. 

 

The panopticon was a historical prison model that allowed guards to oversee prisoners from a single, central point. It also later served as a metaphor for the “big brother” effect of omnipresent surveillance in contemporary society. However, when you enter this installation, you enter a reversed panopticon. Here it is you that surveils the propagandist. In each of the surrounding cells of the Propaganda Station, you can see a specific contemporary propaganda model active in democracies today: from liberal propaganda to financialization propaganda to climate propaganda. 

Propaganda is not merely concerned with sending a message; it is the practice of world-making. If we want to change the world, we will need to understand how contemporary elite forms of propaganda shape our present reality. This is necessary in order for us to collectively propagate a different reality rooted in deep democratization, fair wealth redistribution, and colonial and climate reparation. As such, this installation challenges us not only to critique cases of propaganda as they exist but to contribute to imagining and making a new emancipatory propaganda of our own. 

The exhibition is organized within the international project  Islands of Kinship: A Collective Manual for Sustainable and Inclusive Art Institutions, co-funded by the European Union and Czech Ministry of Culture. 

Jonas Staal: Propaganda Station 

Since I am raising two sons, the issues around war play come up pretty much every day. Although we try to discuss that there is actual war quite close to us (and elsewhere), with all its horrific realities, and that there are so many other games and storylines that could be explored, swords keep clanging and imaginary bombs keep flying over our garden. There is surely a lot of gender-coding and cultural transmission involved – before socializing in wider contexts, our older son just loved to play with colorful ponies, while cars, planes and weapons were of no interest at all. This kind of stereotyping and encoding of the notion of war as something almost “natural” seems to permeate across geographies and times – boys always played with soldiers, the dominant narrative preaches (possibly girls or other genders joined them later, or exceptionally). As much as we try to break, deconstruct or bend this narrative, it is still shaping our present, and from there it draws the future. Similar narratives program us as adults. Somewhere within us we carry our inner children, who used to play war with almost everything they found – from tree branches to paintball or computer games. The advancement of technology, of course, plays a major part in how realistic such “games” become. Yet, the process itself remains similar for centuries – we cannot really imagine ourselves without conflict, without war. 

Such limits of imagination, currently driven by political and economic forces of late capitalism (which is, of course, fueled by historical systems and schemes resulting in it), are a key to the new film by the Dutch artist Jonas Staal, entitled Propaganda Theater, Video Study. The first scene of the film is staged in a reconstruction of the White House Situation room, where instead of projecting scenes from current conflicts and related decision-making processes, the main screen shows excerpts from Hollywood blockbuster movies, such as Top Gun or Godzilla. We get almost caught by the melody of Top Gun’s notoriously romantic soundtrack and the fascinating imagery (yes, Staal’s film also uses the attractive tools of propaganda to later dismantle them), when the voiceover draws us back down to earth. It reminds us of the direct sponsorship of such motion pictures by the Pentagon Entertainment Liaison Offices, which leads to script interventions and control over the “accuracy” of how the US military is portrayed. ”Free ships, planes and soldiers in exchange for providing the image of global US military supremacy,“ the voice comments. The film further explores computer war games, or a simulated warzone created by Hollywood studios, to finally arrive at unfolding the surprisingly similar stories of two artists, who have largely contributed to the public image and actions of the infamous political superstars of the USA and Russia – Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Their respective campaign directors and major ideologues were Steve Bannon and Vladislav Surkov, who both have had a parallel or previous background in film and theatre direction. Both of them had been not only advising, but also staging and directing the roles of their main protagonists, before they were dismissed – possibly thanks to the growing self-esteem of their “heroes”, who finally decided to direct themselves.  

Jonas Staal’s video study attempts to critically assess the principles of such staging, role-play, and encoding major (extremely problematic and intentionally misleading) narratives not only through mass media, but also mass entertainment (while the boundaries between both keep on blurring). The spectators, Staal argues, are not only mere onlookers or consumers; they become spect-actors – active parts of the script, often without even realizing it. “Propaganda works best when it is not recognized as propaganda. It works best when the world we are performing feels like our own, our home, all along,” the film concludes. And this draws us back to the topic of (collective) imagination – it is not easy to start conceiving and realizing a vision of a better world, when we are encoded since our childhood not to be able to see this world without war. There is an ever-growing need to keep realizing and deconstructing such narratives, and our own roles within them, in order to be able to draw an alternative, more desired, more functional picture. 

The film Propaganda Theater is a central part of a large-scale installation Propaganda Station, which summarizes Jonas Staal’s long-term research on propaganda and propaganda art, both critically assessing the “dark sides”, and looking into the possibilities of “emancipatory” propaganda. The installation takes form of a “reversed panopticon” – in Staal’s take, the widely theorized circular prison model allowing for omnipresent surveillance of the prisoners by the guard situated in the center becomes a space for collective observation, where the “propagandists” are observed by the public. In the outer circle, earlier video works on diverse aspects and niches of propaganda are presented – from climate propaganda, through financial and liberal propaganda, to ultranationalist or alt-right propaganda, geological and empire propaganda. Propaganda is understood here not only as a historical concept referring to totalitarian regimes of the past (or those repeating similar pasts in the present), but also a quite vivid mechanism of the northern democracies. The often hidden aspects are brought into light, observed and reassessed, in order to put our imagination back into play and discuss what kind of propaganda, as a tool used by activists, artists and citizens, could “strike back” and help create new, more livable conditions and systems. An integral part of the installation is a live program, the Propaganda School. Local theoreticians, activists, NGO leaders, thinkers and artists are invited to further unfold the narratives proposed by this work, bring in locally relevant issues, discuss together with the wider public and arrive at new crossovers and grounds for collective imagination and action.  

Karina Kottová