“We live in a strange time. Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world… over the past forty years, politicians, financier and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. Instead, they constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it because the simplicity was reassuring. Even those who thought they were attacking the system—the radicals, the artists, the musicians, and our whole counterculture—actually became part of the trickery, because they, too, had retreated into the make-believe world.” So begins the voiceover in filmmaker Adam Curtis’s 2016 BBC documentary HyperNormalisation. Curtis borrowed the word “hypernormalisation” from Russian author Alexei Yurchak, who used it in his 2005 book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More to describe the acceptance of false beliefs, fed to the citizens of Russia by its government in the 1960s-1970s period of late socialism, and the subsequent breakdown of trust and truth.
HyperNormalisation collages, over the span of three hours, the unfolding of events that led us to such a troubling present moment in world history. From Donald Trump’s emergence as a real estate mogul and celebrity to the Reagan Administration’s invention of Muammar Qaddafi as a global villain, the film finds moments that reveal the lies we’ve codified and accepted throughout history. Curtis posits that Western leaders have prioritized resources over people, and built a simplistic narrative to keep the public living in a state of hypernormalisation, sheltered from the uncertainty and ambivalence of our times. Our guileless acceptance of these simplistic narratives has had unintended and often terrifying consequences.
The past few weeks have felt exactly like this: both hypernormal and as if “everything was forever, until it was no more.” While social distancing and practicing isolation, I went searching for solace in the digital world. Watching Curtis’s film was a reminder that we are in an era where realness is under suspicion, and that it has been this way for a long time. HyperNormalisation goes on to discuss the rise of the Internet as a space of retreat from reality. Today, the Internet serves a double function: as a retreat from reality, and a subsequent deep-dive into it. The news cycle is inescapable, but humanity has also found a way to tear through the noise and offer moments of quiet, and seclusion, from the outside world.
Throughout history, art has served a similar function: tearing through reality to offer moments of clarity, truth, excavation, or solace. It has also functioned as a platform, a rooftop from which to shout about “suffering from realness” to quote Jay-Z and Kanye West in their 2011song, “Ni**as in Paris.” While “suffering from realness” looked different in 2011, for both these musicians and myself, this concept has taken on a whole new meaning. Suffering from realness is now about coming to terms with the fact that our world has permanently changed, and that we must now reevaluate what “realness” truly means. In this time of social distancing and self-isolation through what shape is “realness” manifested when we lack of human proximity? And, how are we, as artists and writers and cultural producers, speaking to our times? From Francisco Goya and Leon Golub all the way to the present, artists recognize their responsibility to speak to their time. We understand history as a continuum, leading the artists of today to grab the ring of realness from their predecessors in order to continue to reveal and deal with suffering head on, hoping for a future. In her book The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson writes: “The most interesting work—past, present, or future—is or will be that which dismantles, boycotts, ignores, destroys, takes liberties with, or at least pokes fun at the avant-garde’s long commitment to the idea that the shocks produced by cruelty and violence—be it in art or in political action—might deliver us, through some never-proven miracle, to a more sensitive, insightful, enlivened, collaborative, and just way of inhabiting the earth, and of relating to our fellow human beings.”
Like many fellow art writers, I’ve been turning to the words and works of those who’ve come before me to excavate a semblance of understanding of what lies ahead. These strange and uncertain times bring to the forefront the urgency and need to relate to our fellow human beings, create community, and persevere against all odds. I’ve been trying to use words to make sense of an unprecedented situation. I’ve failed at times but occasionally, I find things to hold onto. James Baldwin wrote in his 1962 essay The Creative Process: “Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality—a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
Artists have always probed the notion of realness, using art to create moments of resistance and to forge paths towards understanding the world as a communal experience. While this essay may have started with a retreat into the hypernormal, these sentiments illustrate the malleable nature of history, the fact that not all stories are written or recorded, and that, as a result, we must be conscious of the history we do write and rewrite. The corrective act of righting history’s wrongs is an endeavor taken on by artists, writers, and others who have actively tried to cultivate the “state of being alone.”
Perhaps a decolonization and decentralization of art is what we’re to gain. As we self-quarantine during the COVID-19 health crisis, many artists, museums, and galleries are utilizing online platforms to freely share their content. Poetry readings are being held through Instagram’s Live platform, and Google has released virtual tours of more than 500 museums and galleries across the world. Many artists have uploaded their works and films online for anyone and everyone to see.
We don’t know what the future holds for us, for the arts, or for humanity, but within this chaos, this suffering from a new reality—or a new realness—we can perhaps find pockets of comfort: in art, in literature, in the resistance of hypernormalisation. This tenderness and collective action can lead to a new form of realness, one tied less to uncertainty and more to liberation.
Sahar Khraibani is a multi-disciplinary artist, designer, and writer from Beirut, currently based in New York City. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut and is a graduate of the Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts.