In George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel 1984, Winston Smith spends his days changing the details of history. He erases and replaces images, alters headlines, and distorts stories of the past, recirculating them as subliminal revisions. This labor of manipulation serves the elusive Big Brother, a totalitarian state that perpetuates its power by constantly rewriting the past in order to fit its propaganda of the present. It is no literary mistake that all of this happens in the records department of the Ministry of Truth. This dark twist of words is just a piece of the Orwellian infrastructure built on doublethink: two opposing ideas presented as equal, casting doubt and confusion on intrinsic meaning, thereby granting Big Brother total control over thought, behavior, and how reality is defined.
It is in this context that I’m thinking about Fake News Archive Project (2020), a thirteen-volume set of books published by Eric Kunsman, five of which were recently on view in the group exhibition Trust, but verify at Rochester Contemporary Art Center in Rochester, New York.1 The books are elongated, thick, and heavy, measuring 12 x 18 x 4.5 inches and weighing approximately twenty pounds each. In their pages, a chronological sequence of images unfolds—screenshots captured by the artist from his smartphone. The screenshots, regimented in vertical format, show the front pages of news media outlets including CNN, Fox News, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and more, beginning with the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States in 2016. In light of what some might say are Orwellian days, however, Kunsman is not the Winston Smith of our time. Under the title of Fake News, Kunsman employs the exact opposite strategy. Instead of rewriting and manipulating elements of news, labeling them as “truth,” Kunsman presents unaltered screenshots of news media pages as they appeared, on the dates they were seen, unchanged, as “fake.”
Although reading the project title, Fake News, might elicit suspicion or skepticism about what is presented inside, Kunsman isn’t interested in altering the images he captures. Instead, he preserves them as is, or as they were. Even so, it doesn’t mean skepticism should be abandoned. In the twenty-first century, accelerated media patterns, headlines, photographs, and details seem to change by the minute and often contradict themselves. In the wake of 2020—a year consumed by a global pandemic, widespread civil unrest, and both environmental and political mayhem—finding consistently reliable information has become dizzying. Even historically reputable news sources don’t seem immune from exaggerated headlines, fevered personalities, and tabloid tendencies. Add in a US President whose outright endorsement and frequent use of the term “fake news”—defined by its use as a weapon to strike against those who question or contradict his statements, policies, or “alternative facts”—only exacerbates distrust in our traditional systems of information, ripping through understandings of reality itself.
Twenty-first-century news media, once dominated by the giants of network television and conventional news publications, have been pulverized into a granular pastiche of click-bait and share-bait, accessed via computers and mobile devices, linking and cross-referencing each other to the point of staggering self-reference, much of it overshadowed by opinion or stained with gossip. Their viral nature infects the process of source-reference and verification once respected in traditional news media. Instead, they rely on the immediacy and magnitude of spread as their validating mechanism. Considering the nature of for-profit news and social media (or of human nature itself, even pre-internet), it isn’t all that surprising that sensational and false news continue to spread the fastest.
Front-page headlines always seem important—urgent issues of the moment—until they aren’t. As historians and researchers commonly scan newspaper archives via microfiche, assembling those once-pressing front pages into retrospective studies, how does one build or even find those elements among digital media today? Can we trust Twitter, Facebook, or even CNN or Fox News to provide us with uncompromised archives of its once sensational, digital front pages and viral posts? Or, is Winston Smith perhaps less a fictional man and more a warning for Orwellian tendencies within our own evolving techno-media culture?
Trump’s aggressive use of the term “fake news” seemed to commonize and even champion Orwellian nomenclature. His own press secretary even used the term “Orwellian” (referring to state-established COVID-19 guidelines for holiday gatherings). Kunsman is certainly aware of this, so it is no coincidence that his project bears the name Fake News. But at the moment, when all traditions and expectations seem to be in question, Kunsman uses the dystopian language of doublethink for a more utopian purpose. Where digital phone-screen news is fleeting, forgettable, and dependent on fickle viewer attention and advertising revenue, Kunsman captures fragments of this spectacle to build a more old-fashioned, straightforward, durable archive. Printed, hardbound, and eventually destined to be shelved away in libraries, these books offer a physical longevity in service of hindsight—from perhaps a more stable (or at least removed) perspective. Kunsman’s project could be an investment in a more hopeful future, where coherence might be sought and found.
However, when carefully turning these pages, the weight and size of each book takes on a physical experience unlike a typical encyclopedic volume. While the images and text populating each screenshot demand visual attention, the books themselves demand a kind of physical coordination. It seems absurd (and would be physically impossible) to flip quickly through this mass of bound pages as someone would scroll through their digital media feeds. Turning each oversized page one at a time becomes daunting, dreadful—almost heavier than the physical books themselves. The time it would take to absorb and comprehend the information presented here is overwhelming. Viewing the screenshots in this linear format, although quieter, slower, and more like a traditional archive experience, quickly becomes a massive undertaking, remaining dense with the confusion embedded in the original, digital format and splintering into endless intersecting paths and stories.
We can’t scroll away from these as temporary issues of the current moment held in our hands. Instead, turning the pages, we are confronted with more and more (up to seven screenshots per page) and they seem to multiply. By the end of Volume 5, we’ve only made it to June of 2020. According to Kunsman, there are eight more volumes to come, with the project concluding around the 2021 presidential inauguration. The first five volumes then represent three and a half years (the majority of Trump’s time in office), while the remaining eight will cover roughly eight months. Although not all evenly proportioned, Volumes 6 to 13 might be more a reflection of the furiously accelerating pace of news during the 2020 election, necessitating more screenshots per volume. This increase in speed and quantity of changing headlines, however, actually makes for a slowdown when it comes time to review them—taking much longer to dredge through the final months of Trump’s presidency, reckoning with how much of this we’ve filtered through over the last four years, and of how much we continue to filter through at every moment. It might be a removed perspective, but it seems to carry almost more of the original baggage with it.
A project like this, although unique, is not all that unusual for Kunsman, a documentary photographer, book artist, educator, and master printer who has spent most of his life around cameras, printing facilities, and classrooms. He has shared various projects in numerous exhibitions and publications over his twenty-year career, including Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY (2017–present). This portfolio of black-and-white photographs captures sites where public pay phones remain in operation. By studying them, one discovers pay phones still functioning in the midst of evolving communication technologies, economic disparities, and misunderstood communities, resisting obsolescence if ever so slightly. This work will be featured in a video documentary being released in 2021, and the photographs, on view this year at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, New York,2 are black and white—shot with Kodak film. Although digitally scanned and printed, these pay phone sites are captured in what might seem like a traditional, even old-fashioned photographic way—appropriate, perhaps, for an outdated form of communication—but a way that Kunsman has chosen to document many of his subjects via the camera.
Kunsman’s Fake News Archive Project is about a different type of phone, and a different type of camera. It is about a device where full-color images and text appear and disappear constantly in the palm of the hand, a device through which most of the known world’s communication is routed, and the same device that Kunsman uses to capture bits of it with a lensless click. It is also about the attempt to curate fragments of this contemporary spectacle in a more deliberate, orderly method. The labor of capturing, labeling, formatting, printing, binding, and archiving these short-lived, hand-sized digital screenshots into concrete, enduring forms is one that attempts to preserve the front pages of our time, regardless of their truth or exaggeration, in a more historically orthodox (yet less common) way. It bears noting that the entire project is also archived and freely accessible online. But there’s something about these weighty, expensive, limited-edition books that sit quietly and separately from the infinite streams of content beaming at us through our screens. The price we pay for user-friendly immediacy may not appear for many years—when websites have expired, news organizations restructured, or power grids realigned. So yes, Fake News Archive Project is about the era of Trump and the cracks left behind by his chaotic, Orwellian administration, but also a widening fragility of human knowledge itself, pulsing through the electro-digital ecosystem we use to access it.
If we are ever able to look back on these four confusing years with any hint of clarity, Fake News Archive Project offers a breadcrumb trail. Picking up the pieces, we quickly load up with heavy cargo and roam along ever more forking paths. But with a sensible eye, one realizes the news presented here is not all fake, nor all true. But Kunsman’s method, faithfully capturing this phenomenon as it appeared to him, as a documentarian so often does, results in a collection of screenshots unlikely to appear in this format ever again. As a whole, it begs examination of how we define and understand the terms “fake” and “true” (Trust, but verify, as the exhibition exhorts).
All that said, this archive is certainly not comprehensive. How could it be? By the time one reads this review, more screenshots will have appeared and disappeared on a single device than are contained in the entirety of these volumes. Of course, forms and interpretations of history will continue to change—something Orwell foreshadowed as vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Kunsman, while pointing to that Orwellian shade, aims toward something different: here are fragments of front-page news, as seen through smartphone screens, as affirmations of a distorted news media spectacle, or as references for a clarity we might yet achieve. In any case, they are dutifully preserved and to be shelved among fellow volumes of history. Although it could be decades or more before we gain a less tainted perspective on the years archived in these tomes, Fake News Archive Project will at least have some honest evidence to show for it.3
Trust, but verify also included Octavio Abundez’s A Fake History of Humanity (2019) and Bill Posters and Daniel Howe’s Big Dada (2018). For more information see www.rochestercontemporary.org/exhibitions/trust-but-verify.
Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY will be on view April 2–July 16, 2021, at CEPA Gallery, Buffalo. For more information see www.cepagallery.org.
To view The Fake News Archive Project in full, as well as more work by Eric Kunsman, see www.erickunsman.com.