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CONFABULATION INC

Patty Hearst

Patty Hearst as Tania in 1974.

Bruce Chatwin’s biographer once said of the great travel writer that: “He tells not a half truth, but a truth and a half.” Chatwin had been accused of embellishing his stories, early in his travel-writing career. To be fair, no travel writers can ever hope or claim to be telling the whole truth about anything. The best they may hope is to be truthful. Artists can stay truthful while serving us only a slice of the truth – larger or smaller, depending on the writer, the context and the occasion. Any retelling always has to be selective. Yet Chatwin’s particular genius was an ability to extract the energy and spirit of a small-scale local story, and reveal its most vital and universal elements. Putting down In Patagonia or Songlines wasn’t necessarily a precursor to booking a flight to Argentina or Australia, but they did intrigue you about palaeontology and anthropology amongst a myriad of other ideas. They left you feeling as if you had connected with incredible stories on diverse and expansive themes across many geographies and tectonic expanses of time. They do this by offering stories of small, apparently inconsequential people connecting to universalities and the universe itself. So what if some details are works of imagination, more art than science? I bet more people were inspired to take on these sciences by Chatwin than any school textbook. 

In the age of Trump and TikTok it’s often assumed that old-school journalists searched for truths like big game hunters, chopping back the undergrowth of misinformation, rumour and bias. No doubt some still do, but they are the exceptions and not the rule. The other lazy assumption was that, back in those halcyon days, these armies of truth-tellers and fact-checkers worked in tandem with educated, fair-minded and receptive audiences who took from the news the raw material of facts about the world and then shaped their democratically enabled opinions. We can’t assume that in the days before digital there was no appetite for filth, gore and horror, that audiences wished for their prejudices to be challenged not reinforced. Alas before Fox News, there was the Sun, and the industrial scale bending of minds wasn’t restricted to the gutter press, rather the media have long targeted the educated middle class with more ideological determination than the tabloid consumers of shlock. Systematic studies of the media output show this to be historically consistent. The boom in The Light newspaper in rural and small town Britain is a direct result of such alienation from the mainstream. The newspaper, which offers a diet of vaccine and climate-change denial and dodgy alt-right politics, is a grassroot-funded model of print media that adds to the myriad of similar information available on social media but this time with the authority bestowed by print. It may be ridiculed by urban sophisticates, but those busy laughing at it need to stop and consider their own media habits. A recent study shows that every demographic tends to shop for news analysis that confirms their priors. 

Some like to think that the media became the business of comment and bias confirmation when the money was sucked out by digital platforms and their toxic algorithms. But this merely exacerbated an existing trend. Pretty much all media under all forms of government has always been about the transmission of value systems. The variations are in how dissenting views are dealt with – so multi-award-winning veteran journalists like John Pilger and Seymour Hersh might have been shunned and exiled by publishers, but Anna Politkovskaya was shot with actual bullets. But both forms of suppression have strong similarities in effect, silencing dissent. News is always delivered flavoured with a dose of ideology, as the 1996 interaction between a fresh-faced Andrew Marr and Noam Chomsky showed so succinctly. The indignant journalist asked the professor how he could possibly know that he was self-censoring. Chomsky replied: “I am sure you sincerely believe everything you are saying. My point is that if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting there asking the questions.”

TANK is not, of course, a news and current affairs magazine. This issue marks our 25th anniversary. Since 1998 our commitment in putting the think into the tank has been both to tamper with and treasure the idea of what a magazine can be. Our mission is to temper confabulation with critical thinking, and investigate the conflicted nature of authorship; doing our best not to get high on our own supply.

In an interview with TANK many years ago the American journalist Sally Singer told us how her love of magazines began with the saga of the Patty Hearst kidnapping in 1974. Hearst, the granddaughter of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (famously the model for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and the originator of the concept of “yellow journalism”), was kidnapped by the members of an armed radical left-wing group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army. Suddenly a media dynasty that had accrued a fortune through sensational tabloid journalism was the subject of a story more sensational than any of their hired hacks could ever have imagined. Who says there is no irony in America?

Notoriously, while in captivity Patricia joined her kidnappers. Renaming herself Tania, she became an active soldier within the army, taking part in a bank robbery. The drama, with its heady cocktail of racialised radical politics, sex, criminality and celebrity was the lead story across the world for over a year. For a teenager like Singer the “whole featurised, magazine way of packaging the event” by the San Francisco Chronicle proved to offer the deepest form of engagement with the story. Radio and TV headlines came and went, but the combination of the text, illustrations and statistics allowed you to linger on the story. The heiress in her military fatigues and beret offered up a lurid icon for the decade. Just as Hearst transformed her role from passive victim of a kidnapping to join her captors as comrades, these magazines allowed Singer and a million others a level of authorship within it as they acquired a growing sense of connoisseurship about the story. Today, a trace of that sense of co-authorship and empowerment lingers in comic books and computer games where the reader – or the player – explicitly co-directs the unfolding drama, rather than simply receive it from the broadcast of a movie or television series.

In 1998, TANK started with the ambition of juxtaposing art, fashion, design and architecture, something as exceptional then as it is commonplace now. We wondered why a smart and analytical eye couldn’t be cast on them all from the same vantage point. Wasn’t the fashion customer also interested in art and architecture and did not artists and architects take an interest in fashion style and popular culture? Why would one discipline be taken seriously, and another considered flippant and shallow? Why would you need to be a hysteric Ab Fab cliché to comment on fashion or only use artspeak to describe the art world? Our mission became to look at these cultural domains with the same passionate yet thoughtful gaze – hoping to offer a bridge between cultural silos. 

For this special issue we invited celebrated American artist Theaster Gates to be our co-conspirator and collaborator. Gates is an individual who almost defies definition – his broad multidisciplinary practice takes in ceramics, sculpture, music, performance, installation, architectural space theory and land development, among much else. He is also, as he frequently declares, a sort of hustler who transcends cultural and commercial spheres. By making property development one of the many media of his art – having worked as a city planner for a decade – Gates has sculpted a sort of hybridity between art and commercial realities that feels genuinely new. Other artists may have made the financialisation of art their oeuvre, but none appeared to have any perceptible purpose in doing so other than becoming very rich themselves. Gates stands apart because with him there is a point to it all. He is creating art with a purpose as a social project in the community (not just his collectors, agents and dealers), but people who look like him and come from the same background. It’s this rootedness and ambition that makes him one of the most compelling artists working today.

One hundred or so pages of this special anniversary issue are the results of letting Theaster Gates loose in  the house, giving him the space to commission articles, conduct interviews, and illustrate features. He chose to feature long-term allies, patrons, collaborators, and cherished projects including the Black Image Corporation and Dorchester Industries. We hope that this content is a valuable memento of a moment. A room with a view inside the practice of a major artist. Masoud Golsorkhi