There used to be a time (seriously not that long ago) when conspiracy theorists operated on the fringes of society. With little validation from the mainstream, the best these armchair "theorists" could hope for was marginal growth in Reddit upvotes or (if they're lucky) a day-time mention on the History Chanel (Ancient Aliens any one?). Today, conspiracy theories have become all too real—not in the sense that they're somehow more "true," but in that they've had real, significant, and irreparable effects on reality.
Take Pizzagate, for instance: The theory that the DC pizzaria Comet Ping Pong was the headquarters of an underground chid sex ring involving Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta and a slew of other high-ranking Democrats. Pizzagate inspired one Edgar Maddison Welch to shoot an AR-15-style rifle in the restaurant (no one was hurt). Perhaps even more shocking: A poll administered by The Economist/YouGov asked voters in December of 2016 whether they believed that Clinton's leaked emails mentioned "pedophilia and human trafficking—Pizzagate." Seventeen percent of Clinton voters and 46 percent of Trump voters responded "true."
But while conspiracy theories may have tangible consequences, they themselves are notably immaterial. Pizzagate was founded on 4Chan and Twitter, supposedly "substantiated" by leaked emails on Wikileaks, perpetuated by fake news websites and message boards, and even made its way to government-sponsored Turkish media. Standing on virtual legs made of pageviews and upvotes, algorithms and memes, conspiracies are made in virtual space, quenched by the continuous flow of the internet and its users. Virility is what gives them agency; their origins are moot.
In “Until it reached into our lives and destroyed the tranquility that we had,” artist Matty Davis and curator Mike Maizels present a different perspective, exhibiting works that make conspiracy theory real and tangible. They materialize the truths and falsities of a particular conspiracy theory that is literally rooted in soil—soil in western Arkansas, to be (somewhat) exact. The project began with an extensive research mission that involved recon flights, fieldwork, and bushwhacking deep in the forests of Arkansas, in search of a secret airstrip and drop site that allegedly facilitated covert CIA operations in support of Nicaraguan guerilla fighters in the mid-eighties. (Spoiler alert: they actually found it!) Money laundering, drug smuggling, arms trafficking, murder—it's all part of a plot that would seem completely made up if it didn’t resonate so convincingly with observable truth.
The results of this research wound up as an exhibition of sculptures, photographs, a film, and a book—the source materials for which come directly from Arkansas land: plinths made out of dirt hauled from an overgrown runway; mined airplane windows and spare parts; water trudged from Fourche La Fave River. Exhibited at the University of Arkansas Fine Arts Center Gallery in August 2018, and later in January of this year at False Flag gallery in Long Island City, Queens, the exhibition illustrates the latest example of Davis's multidisciplinary approach wherein his body becomes both a material and collaborator with other bodies/material/land.
For a better understanding of how an exhibition like this even happens (and to indulge in the juicy details of this titillating conspiracy plot), we spoke with the project's instigator and curator, Mike Maizels, about how it all went down. Buckle your seat belts.
How did this start?
When I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, I drove out there from Boston where I'm back living now. So I took this big cross country road trip during the Summer of 2016, which we all know was a loaded time in the political history of this country, before it was clear that Trump was going to win. I moved assuming that Trump was going to lose the election and started thinking a lot about the political legacy of the Clintons and the status of Trump's popularity in the state (it was a state that he wound up carrying by 26 points; it's deep Trump country). I started thinking through what it was going to mean in the Clinton back yard, which became the Trump back yard. All of that was burbling in the brain when I got off this road trip and made my way to the signature bookstore that's near the University [of Arkansas].
It’s a beautiful, labyrinthian, dusty old book shop that seemed like it was invented by Thomas Pynchon because it was too perfect to be real. I was going through the Arkansas history section, and a book pops out called Compromise: The Secret History of the Clintons and the CIA Exposed. I thought, for one dollar, this has to be worth the adventure. So I picked the book up and it weirdly got ahold of me. It made all of these crazy-sounding allegations about the Clintons, the CIA, secret guerilla fighters running around in the forest, and people blackmailing Bill Clinton with affairs and marijuana, etc. It was like really bad spy fiction, basically. I had been raised on too much good spy fiction to not look into it a little bit because it was a story… I don't know how else to put this… that no one would make up. It's too bad a story to be invented by somebody.
I started pulling on the sweater and it seems like some of the more incomprehensibly outlandish claims in the book might have some real basis in reality. The Wall Street Journal had been covering some of the CIA allegation events from the 1980s, so there was a real fire under some of the smoke. I thought, let's see if I can figure out what the hell happened here, but I cant write an exposé about this, I'm not an investigative journalist. I'm an art curator, so I have to art curate something about this.
I had gotten to know Matty [Davis] about a year and a half before that. We met at an opening in New York, and he showed me this piece that's incredible. His father was killed in an airplane crash; the flight left Chicago and crashed in Pennsylvania, and Matty ran that entire distance over the course of three weeks. So I had this remarkable alignment between an artist who I'd been searching for a project to do with, whose signature thing was looking for secret aircraft sites and endurance journeys in the forest. I called Matty and said we had to do this thing together. From there it just went rolling and rolling and rolling.
So what exactly is the conspiracy theory?
I'll tell you the conspiracy theory and then I'll share with you what is, from my perspective, the incontrovertible smoking gun, which has made me look at this whole thing completely upside down in retrospect, because I got into it assuming it was hog wash. As I got further and further along it felt like I was living inside a Pynchon novel. Because that's how they all start: he stumbles on some book in the back of a bookstore and it turns out a secret underground network has been running Los Angeles the whole time. This had taken over my actual lived reality.
The quick political history here is that the cold war is raging and it's happening on many fronts. There's a socialist government that has overthrown a long-serving quasi-colonial strongman in Nicaragua. But the anti-communist crusader, Ronald Reagan in the White House, was not content to leave it be. So he starts making a lot of noise about how we have to go after this, but it’s in a moment when he doesn't have the political clout to get away with everything that he wants to do, and Congress says "no." So, some clever advisors in Reagan's administration says, Well, the law says that the federal government can't get involved, which means Congress says it's not a war, but we can conduct covert CIA action in the region because that's the executive branch and not the federal government. I mean, how many things have started this way?
So they get involved with supplying the Contras, who are the anticommunist guerilla fighters in Nicaragua. It's made more complicated because the CIA needs a source of untraceable funding; this can't cost any federal money so the operation has to pay for itself. So they get sucked into the drug smuggling world in South America.
All of this stuff is spiraling beyond my real ability to research, but the one fact that touches Arkansas I feel like I one-hundred-percent confirmed is real. The book alleged that as part of this ongoing saga, the CIA decided the most effective thing it could do to raise the efficiency of its support was to professionalize the resupply operation. The plan was to teach the Contra guerillas how to get supplies deeper into the jungle to support the armies. So, they brought a bunch of these Contras the middle of Arkansas and built a secret base in the forest to do maneuvers, teach them night air drops, and whatever. And then that small thing became the base of a larger node, because they built a small mountain airport down the road from… a preposterous thing that I wish I could have spent more time investigating… a parking meter factory, that according to this book, was manufacturing (off the books) M16 stocks that they were then outfitting with spare parts from the army and then just sending down to Nicaragua. It's nuts!
The Arkansas part was the thing that we focused on. There were these sites that had supposedly severed as barracks, airfields, and training camps. We spent a long time looking for these things. Long story short, we did a bunch of research and identified some sites from hand drawn maps in the book and by talking to eyewitnesses. One, which we actually found, is about ten miles from paved road, and it's fenced off with barbed wire…. in the middle of the forest. We get there, we climb the barbed wire, we're looking around, and just as the book describes it, there's a long, low-slung, clearly-been-planned area of grass, the outside of which is strewn with electrical wiring and transformers and abandoned equipment. And right next to the runway there is a ten-foot-tall mountain pole for a wind sock. Just sitting there. In a fenced off meadow ten miles away from the road. In the national forest. For me, there is no explanation for how all that stuff is there other than that this actually happened.
Well is there an alternative explanation? I mean, has anyone offered an account that explains why this is here—like it used to be an airport for this other thing that isn’t this mind-blowing story about the CIA?
Here it gets even weirder. Wouldn't it be nice to ask the person who theoretically owns the land? Because it's really strange that this one little patch of land is owned by somebody even though it's surrounded by national forest. That person, a woman whose name is on the deed, has a last name that corresponds to the person who was supposedly in charge of the camp during the 1980s. It's like the same name with one letter changed. And her husband’s first name also corresponds with the name of that of camp staff person. He, under the most inexplicable of circumstances, was murdered in the year 2000. As the story goes, his neighbor borrows money from some race horse jockeys and somehow there’s a cross fire and he gets a bullet in the back of the head in a church parking a lot. Five arrests are made, five charges are dropped, no more story.
This is not the only murder that you've come across, right?
No. To be perfectly frank, some of these other conspiracy murders make me much more suspicious/ Aspects of this story that I haven't witnessed with my direct eyes—it's hard to know how much of it to believe and how much of it is a tight-knit community that’s telling stories to itself, without any peer review. Probably facets of most of it, probably not the majority of all of it, is true. Some pieces, that to my own research satisfaction have confirmed, exist. And therefore some amount of it more must exist.
What was your mission here?
To make art!
How did that inform your research process? I imagine that, unlike an investigative journalist, you find each piece of the puzzle, and your not necessarily thinking, “yes we're one step closer to uncovering the truth!” Instead it’s like, “yes, this is going to make for great source material that can be later used for an art piece!”
Yes. I, as an art historian, think about art historical kinds of problems. And one of the little tangled bits of philosophy from graduate school that always teased me was a Heidegger dictum about how the land yields truth forward. It's quasi-early-Nazism, blood-and-soil sort of stuff. It's sticky and gross and then you're taught to hate it. You're supposed to read Derrida who says truth is, in fact, a total construction and you all leave graduate school as perfectly inhabited post-modernists. There's something kind of stupid to me about being a perfectly inhabited post-modernist. So I enjoy thinking about ways to turn some of these ideas on their heads. I was thinking about this project in relation to this big art historical question about land and truth value, and I was interested in a dynamic that hadn't, to my satisfaction, been explored, which is not: Heidegger’s ‘land yields truth’ and not Derrida’s ‘there is no truth,’ but rather something else that seems to be happening here: the land yields lies. This soil just became this embodiment of falsehood.
Matty sourced a bunch of the earth and made very interesting earth plinths that became the basis of a performance of his. I don' want to over curate and describe his work for him too much… but these plinths functioned as these super weird objects—charged electricity of the entire legacy of American tyranny all over the world. Even in our own back yard, to us, the residents of Arkansas.
I saw in the publication… I think it was a foot note, barely mentioned, that you had also used the kind of machine that ghost hunters use to measure supernatural activity or energy or something… I forget the name of the device.
Totally, that was Chris, who was our guide, who was making the joke. Because all of us just felt this horrible crackling energy in these places, and I'm sure some of it is just the simple fear of thinking, ‘I've stepped over a fence somewhere really far away, maybe there's snakes, maybe I'm going to get shot.’ But there was a really bad juju in these places. You could just feel it. So the joke that our friend and guide had was that the ghost hunters would be like, ‘My EVPs are like peakin’ bro!’
Legitimately, though, the murder you mentioned didn't happen that long ago, and here you are poking your nose into a seriously guarded and dark history, just to make an art show. I mean, not that making an art show isn’t a totally valid pursuit, but is it worth the potential risk? Did you ever feel like you were actually in danger? Did you ever feel like you were in too deep?
Constantly! Yes! A lot! [Laughs.] This was an experience unlike any other. At some point I thought, ‘I need to walk back down off the mountain. This is as far as I should ever go for the whole rest of my life.’ I'm confusing the order of the story a little bit, but we're in a river, and we've seen snakes swimming around in this river. We have to get across it. I'm trying to help Matty carry this heavy-ass box of dirt; it weighs well over 100 pounds and it’s strapped to the top of his head. As I’m doing this I make a vow to myself: I will never curate anything that I can't drive a car to. If I'm in a river, I've gone to far.
I’m not an outdoorsman—both Matty and Chris are—but of course I need to be there because I put this whole thing into motion. On the way back to the car, Chris is out in front, Matty is pulling up the rear with wood strapped to his head, it’s pouring rain, and they're both 100 percent sure they know which direction the car is, and they’re in opposite directions, and they're screaming at each other. I'm in the middle, and I have no idea which way the car is.
You're like, aren't I supposed to be in a gallery somewhere?
Shouldn't I be drinking a latte?
…Under fluorescent lighting, warm within the glow of my computer screen?
Yep. I remember thinking: How am I going to explain this to my wife?
Before calling you I kind of expected that you were a really adventurous guy who was looking for a way to get out of the office, came across this story, and was like, ‘great, now I have an amazing excuse to get some vitamin D and go hang out in the woods.’ But it's actually the opposite; this is just the kind of stuff you had to do to get the job done right.
Right. I always had a danger-seeking streak. “Danger” is the wrong word. I think interesting things happen on the margins, and the margins are not always attended by total safety. It's not that danger itself is important to me. It's just that important things live sometimes where there's danger. But yeah, this was the only time the danger was physical in that way. I am a city dweller.
There's so many different layers to this story. While you're investigating this conspiracy related to politics in Nicaragua, it's 2016, you're in an area of the country that's home to some of the people who are responsible for creating or perpetuating all these other conspiracy theories that are not true but actually have very real political ramifications. Like Pizzagate, for instance.
Yeah! It’s crazy.
So with that as the backdrop, did you ever feel worried about validating a conspiracy, particularly one that involves the Clintons, that though warranted, could inadvertently elevate conspiracy theories in general—including the really bad ones?
For me, that's not a concern at all. In fact, I think the ethics of the situation is very much the opposite. One of the CIA transparency activists who worked on this issue back in the day believes that the most effective way that government conspiracies have of cloaking themselves is not to prevent no information from ever coming out. It's to make sure that any information that comes out is contextualized around a bunch of bullshit; to reduce the signal to noise ratio. Therefore, sorting the signal from the noise actually felt to me like an enormously beneficial thing to do.
More so than finding truth, this project is really about investigating lies.
This is just a beautiful poetic thing... So this local area in Arkansas is known for a particular kind of crystalline formation called a Herkimer Diamond, which is a false diamond. I mean, no body really confuses them for diamonds, but they’re very clear quartz crystals. These little beams of falsehood were literally oozing out the soil; the ground was sweating lies. Chris is an avid rock hound. After we got back to safety, he took Matty and Erica out looking for these rocks and they found one that was bigger than anything he'd ever seen; it was larger than a fist. And it was just sitting in a streambed.
Weird. Pynchon's editor would have sent this story back and been like, that's not believable. But what are you supposed to do when it actually happens?