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Hate Library – Interview with Artist Nick Thurston Part 1: Art and Hate

Nick Thurston’s ‘Hate Library(2017) is an installation that exhibits far-right conversations – specifically white supremacy and ethno-nationalist speech gathered from online fora. These are printed as placards in a frieze of giant webpages, surrounding a circle of books, which contain dialogues between different nationalist communities from around Europe. The work was presented as part of 2018’s transmediale festival in Berlin, entitled Face Value. It pushed some buttons with me, so I contacted the artist and we agreed to publish an interview conducted via email – broken into two parts – about the art world’s relationship with white supremacy and ethno-nationalism, and the changing nature of publishing.

Richard Pettifer: The work addresses the white supremacy embedded within Europe – symbolised by each country’s ‘History Book’ (as you call them) arranged into the stars of the European flag. I immediately wondered what it would be like to experience ‘Hate Library’ as a target of some of the comments surrounding the viewer – to be Black, say, or ethnic Albanian Kosovar, or Jewish. Did you address the experience of these subjectivities? Or is the work just talking to white Europeans who may not realise the extent to which white supremacy is interlinked with the foundation of Europe, and the EU?

‘Hate Library’ in Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo: Luca Girardini, transmediale, CC BY NC-SA 4.0

Nick Thurston: White supremacism is a racist ideology. Taken up as a worldview, it becomes a super-national or global principle for a structurally racist world. That’s the ideological principle or foundation of the Stormfront web project, public sections of which were the source for the content of the frieze of ‘Truth Searches’ and the ‘Thread Name Poem’ in the ‘Hate Library’. In that sense, a white supremacist worldview is encoded in content documented by the project, but there are other, broader nationalist ideologies represented in the ‘Hate Library’ – which are used to try to divide the globalised and multicultural communities we now live within along more complicated lines, like ethno-nationalist models. Both rely on a false idea of ‘pure’ ancestry, but racism pins everything on singularity and biology, and ethnicity-oriented models discriminate against cultural (and often plural) bonds.

White supremacism is about furthering the already privileged position of white people, and that privileged subject position is one that I’ve inherited. I haven’t, wouldn’t, and can’t make any claim to speak for anyone from a more marginalised subject position. So, I’m the wrong person to answer your first question. I certainly wondered – and worried – about the potential negative effects of exposing people to this material, and about the danger of reinforcing, or even monumentalising, this material by repeating it offline and enlarged. In answer to your second question: I don’t make artworks like this for any kind of idealised ‘target’ audience: every artwork produces its own public over its lifetime on display. That audience shares a common experience even if their responses to the work are completely different. This artwork targets that experience: it’s about holding open a problem and sharing the responsibility for doing so.           

RP: I don’t want to speak for anyone else either, but there would be many who wouldn’t see white supremacy (or ethno-nationalist ideologies, for that matter) as a “shared problem” – but as a problem created by white people, who create this biopolitical fiction. Putting the burden on everyone might be a little unfair?

NT: I think Simon Critchley’s idea of “infinite demand” is really useful here: that we try to live as best we can in sensitive ways, aware that our actions affect one another, and that we’re, therefore, morally complicit in the life-worlds we take part in, on micro or macro levels. It’s about a micro-political awareness of the unknowable interconnections between us, adjusted by every small and big decision we make or take, but which are beyond our complete control.  

All of which is to say, I don’t see how anyone could choose to be unaffected by the local or global aspects of the far-right’s renewal, and neither hippy-ish escapism or liberal quietism have any attraction for me. Of course, it affects different people to different extents and in different ways, but the question is, ‘what can we do in our limited, flawed and different ways?’.

RP: That’s not the narrative fed to us by mass media, which have a fascination with white supremacy and ethno-nationalism of the far right. In aestheticising this online speech, what were your responsibilities as an artist presenting to the public?

NT: Aestheticisation is a notoriously contrary act. It involves turning ‘things’ into something they weren’t whilst also depending on them continuing to be what they were. All artistic gestures demand this of the material. Transforming ‘things’ is the work of making art. ‘Hate Library’ walks a fine line. I’ve turned non-art documents into the contents of a documentary artwork, knowing that aestheticisastion can involve an act of beautifying, which risks glorifying, spectacularising, or just making-pleasant a content. There is a risk of that, given the way I’ve exported, re-formatted, and displayed the unaltered content, but I hope ‘Hate Library’ has avoided, or even refused, the obvious traps precisely by being blunt about what it does and doesn’t do, and about the source of its content. The artistic gesture is to make already-public material public again, yet differently, as a theatricalised, yet functioning, public reference, so it can be read differently in unavoidably social circumstances. Again, this gesture tries to make the material a shared problem. It implicates the forum-users, me, the host institution, and audiences in a network of questions about responsibility. Its methods are complicated and tangled. The lines of responsibility get grey and change with new engagements. It certainly means that we take on – to differing degrees – shared responsibility for the material’s persistence. That’s how the artwork works and we work with it: It becomes a platform for opening up a problem together. In a modest way, ‘Hate Library’ problematises the many-layered and fluid issues of responsibility that condition our current public life, as citizens who constantly self-publish (wittingly and unwittingly) and are complicit in global power imbalances in unprecedented ways.

RP: I don’t totally disagree with you regarding shared responsibility – but a legitimate retort might be “You created it. You deal with it. I have my own shit to deal with”. Phenomena like white supremacy or ethno-nationalism drain the resources of those whom they attack, who have to spend their time worrying (or if they are victims, grieving) when they could attend to their own material conditions or mobilisation. The public sphere has also changed from one of common problems requiring shared responsibility to problems targeted at demographics, much like advertising.

NT: I agree one aspect of the slip from liberal to neo-liberal hegemony is a move from being allowed to choose (within prescriptive limits) to being sold choices. I agree there’s a complicated matrix of different political identities within every society. I also agree that my, or your, subject status is a much safer and more privileged one than most. But your point makes a mistaken set of assumptions about my position, not least the idea that sharing a social problem means sharing it evenly. What might be of value are forms of cultural praxis making small contributions to kick-starting impassioned discussions like ours. Not enough (the demand is infinite), but also not nothing.

RP: I’m just questioning the extent to which the problem can be shared. Given the provocative nature of ‘Hate Library’’s gesture, and absence of clear and visible discourse surrounding it, that the artist is not ‘present’ in the work – these details open it for potential misinterpretation.  Its exposed location within transmediale didn’t seem to help that – ‘Hate Library’ seems a work that needs to be looked at deeper and more critically. What steps did you take to draw the viewer in, and refuse the possibility of a surface reading?

NT: Sadly, ‘Hate Library’ could expand forever. There’s no shortage of material. Post-digital political spheres are proving an incubator for extremist ideologies, which is what we’ll explore in more detail in the multi-authored book being developed from the exhibition. Compositionally, I’ve always been committed to precision and concision. ‘Hate Library’’s combination of content and tightly-choreographed form involves a perverse mix of literalism and allegory, and I hope it invites readings at every depth, from the obvious surface polemic to much deeper readings.

The frieze is a classical form, just like the wall inscription. ‘The book’ is a symbol and container for knowledge, just like ‘the exhibition’. They’re all media forms, in the broadest sense, and all laden with long histories of use and misuse. Producing semi-permanent versions of all these forms with cheaply reproduced printouts acknowledges where ‘Hate Library’’s material comes from, the fluid networks it plays a part in building – online and offline – but, also, about leaning on traditional statuses of these forms so that we could pause their content. The installation’s staging has a simple aim: allowing people to attend to material differently than they might when privately using web-enabled devices. Actually encouraging attention, and making some conceptual and technical connections between the different bodies of source material, became a symbolic job. ‘Hate Library’ is blunt on that level – maybe too blunt.

RP: You spent 3-4 years with the material. Did it affect you psychologically or personally?

NT: Yes, it had a profound effect on me, but, of course, that’s nothing compared to the effects it has on the communities it targets. I don’t think my purely personal experience of it matters.

Part II: Publishing Hate can be found here. 

Cover image: detail of Festival edition: 2018
Luca Girardini, transmediale, CC BY NC-SA 4.0