Most of the videos consist of a disembodied voice laconically commenting on the work of London-based video artist Maria Marshall. “There are things here I cannot show you, that some of you aren’t going to be happy with,” says the narrator, whose #Pizzagate channel on YouTube has almost 8,000 subscribers. The tone of voice is scandalized, the language vaguely threatening. He suggests that a man seen in a video in which Marshall makes brownies for her family is a pedophile. I “don’t know what you’re going to do about it,” he says, with the implication that his followers should take their anger to the source. And then: “I’m going to make a video on it in hopes that the right person sees it.”
Marshall, whose work appears in the exhibition “Revival” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is yet more collateral damage from the hacking of John Podesta’s emails during the presidential election campaign last year. The October leak embarrassed the Clinton campaign, of which Podesta was chairman, and embroiled his brother, the lobbyist and art collector Tony Podesta. An elaborate and false Internet theory about the Podestas and child sexual abuse developed into “Pizzagate” which led to a man firing shots at a popular pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington in December. Marshall is among the artists collected by Tony Podesta who, with his ex-wife Heather, donated many of the most substantial works that appear in the “Revival.”
The Podesta connection was enough to put Marshall’s work under scrutiny by conspiracy theorists and Internet cranks like the creator of the videos on the Pizzagate channel. An attempt to contact the anonymous author of the videos through YouTube’s message service didn’t receive a response.
“It is very dangerous what he is doing,” says Marshall. “He is inciting people to take up weapons.”
Marshall arrives for an interview in a dress made from a fabric she designed, decorated with images of bacteria or viruses that cause sexually transmitted diseases. Her affect, her train of thought, her entire worldview couldn’t be at a further remove from the one suggested by her YouTube stalker. And yet his videos suggest that Marshall’s art may have succeeded all too well, agitating an anonymous art-phobic audience in almost the same way they are meant to agitate their intended audience in the cosmopolitan art world. The video voice anatomizing her art does much of the same work that critics do: It reads them closely, registers profound discomfort, acknowledges ambiguity and accepts confusion and subjectivity.
“I don’t even know, like I do not even know what to think right now,” he says, after trying to make sense of one of Marshall’s more provocative works.
That is an understandable reaction. Marshall often uses her family, especially her sons, Raphael and Jacob, in videos that are “both frighteningly real and blatantly fictitious,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which accessioned the 1998 “When I Grow Up I Want to be a Cooker.” That work, now on display at the NMWA, shows one of Marshall’s sons as a toddler, appearing to smoke a cigarette with the relish of an addict.
The boy isn’t in fact smoking. Like many of her other works, the video is about Marshall’s anxieties, her fear as a parent that she can’t ultimately keep her children from the self-destructive behaviors in which so many adults indulge. She says that, like many women, when she was starting out as an artist she seemed to face a choice between having a family and devoting herself seriously to her work. So she made her family her subjects.
“I didn’t separate the two,” she says. “I focused on them. My husband encouraged it. It was like I really got to know them very, very well.”
The videos are sometimes darkly comic or surreal, and her family often seems trapped in a nightmare. Artists who blur the lines between the privacy of family and the public realm of art have always been subject to suspicion. Female artists such as Sally Mann, who made exquisitely evocative photographs of her young children, have been targets of censure for focusing on family. Marshall has the support of her now-adult sons, including the 23-year-old Raphael, who posted a defense of his mother on a social-media page: “I have been involved with my Mother’s art as long as my memory serves me, each time an experience which she made fun,” he wrote. “Who are these people that have nothing better to do with their time than stir rumors and conspiracies into our lives.”
This week, the rumors and conspiracies intimated in the YouTube videos came uncomfortably close to daily business for the women’s museum. The date and time of a gallery talk about the “Revival” exhibition on Wednesday was mentioned in an online forum, raising the possibility of protest or disruption. The talk went off without disturbance, but it underscored some of the more arcane aspects of contemporary art discourse that are easily misread or appropriated by audiences attracted to conspiracy interpretations.
The parallel between the language of art, and the discourse of child abuse — hiding and concealing, clandestine spaces, a feeling of profound discomfort when you see something inexplicable — is striking.
The difference, of course, is that there is no actual abuse in the work of Marshall. “The video is not a video of child smoking but a constructed object,” says Susan Fisher Sterling, the museum’s director. But a distinction — between what is real and what is fiction — that is mostly obvious and unproblematic in popular culture isn’t functioning so neatly in the museum setting. For some people, these videos are clearly art objects, which lead to discomfort and from there to thought and introspection; for others, they seem real enough to warrant suspicion, and action.
There is a subset of video art that has long trafficked in the actuality of highly disturbing things, including an iconic film of Chris Burden’s 1971 performance piece, “Shoot,” in which the artist was shot with a .22-caliber rifle. The history of that kind of work shadows subsequent artists, such as Marshall, who wants viewers to indulge the fuzziness of the reality/fiction distinction in a more sustained way than that demanded by fictional film.
Fisher says one of the museum’s functions is to contextualize disturbing work in ways that underscore its “constructed” nature. The guy sitting alone in a room with a computer analyzing Marshall’s work is missing the cues and caveats that come with art presented in a museum setting. “It is a closed system,” she says, of the conspiracy-minded interpretation. “When you see it in a place like a museum, there is context that is brought to bear, there are conversations with other works of art in the room.”
All of this is yet one more unforeseen consequence of a movement toward breaking down the institutional walls between museums and audiences — an openness celebrated within the museum community. Now work circulates freely — Marshall’s videos are available on her website and Vimeo — and can freely reach wider audiences than experienced museumgoers. Marshall and her troll are now engaged in a curious, surreal relationship of artist to audience, with the one making powerful, disturbing work and the other receiving it with an engaged and impressionable mind. The difference between her ideal viewer and the man who is threatening her is small but terrifying: Just add paranoia.
Revival is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through Sept. 10. nmwa.org.