What is Truth?

What is Truth?

“Post truth” was word of the year in 2016. Now, with deepfakes and generative tools making headlines daily, over 75% of consumers have become concerned about misinformation from AI (Forbes, 2023). “What is truth?”, then, is a defining question of our times. But how do we even begin to answer it? Luckily, Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, has taken up the challenge for us. It has launched a season of four art exhibitions – In Event of Moon Disaster; Liquid Gender; Jeffrey Gibson: No Simple Word for Time and The Camera Never Lies: Challenging Images Through the Incite Project – that each attempt to make sense of a world moving at speed. We can no longer trust a photograph. But have we ever been able to? We sat down with the museum’s Director, Dr Jago Cooper, and Research Assistant, Andy Rogers, to learn more about the creative people and complex themes at the heart of What is Truth?

A: How would you answer the question “what is truth?”
AR: For me, as an archaeologist by training, historical and cultural specificity is important. What was true for a person living in, for example, medieval Norwich, would be different from what is true for somebody in New York right now. This is more than the adage that “truth is relative” – for me, truth develops not from the different perspectives of individuals, but from the many messy and varied connections between humans and non-humans which make the worlds in which we live. For me, I do not believe that truth is a constant and essential thing, that exists outside of time and space, but is immanent, relational, contingent and historical. JC: Everyone must find their own truth in the world. The longer you live and the more you see, the more you realise that you need to decide for yourself the things you believe in.

A: Why is a season of exhibitions like this so important, right now, in 2024?
JC: I think museums in the 21st century must reflect global society in the 21st century. Answering the questions that are most important to people’s lives is what the Sainsbury Centre is all about. In an era of fake news, manipulated images and AI-generated conversations, it is becoming genuinely difficult to know whether what we see and listen to every day is true or not. AR: Information is more freely available than ever before, and we receive a lot of it: social media feeds, emails, news updates. The idea of “fake news” has been around for a while now, but it’s increasingly difficult to assess whether we can trust the information that comes our way. Any exhibition that examines this problem, and encourages us to think critically, is vital, especially when, in many contexts, knowledge is being policed. Disciplines centred on criticality – i.e. the arts and humanities – are under attack; they’re being defunded by governments and universities, labelled as “woke” and sensationalised. Likewise, there is a growing weaponisation of issues such as sex and gender. These aren’t just buzzwords thrown about in heated debates, but aspects of identity that have very real impacts on peoples’ lives. Exhibitions such as Liquid Gender and Jeffrey Gibson: no simple word for time provide a counterpoint to negative and fractious debates. These artists are helping to build queer, Black, and Indigenous futures simply through asserting who they are unapologetically.

A: Where did the idea come from? What did the process of putting this all together look like?
JC: We reached out to a whole range of people, both locally and around the world, to ask them what the most important questions were in their lives right now. We picked those that we felt crossed all cultural and demographic realms. Unfortunately for our incredibly hard-working curatorial and collections teams, taking this approach to exhibition programming is extremely challenging. We have had to create five totally separate but concurrent exhibitions within less than a year to get this off the ground. The only way this has been possible has been through the amazingly generous and collaborative approach of all the artists we have worked with. Not to mention the unbelievable creativity and dedication of the small team that works at the Sainsbury Centre – including people like Andy!

A: Tell us about the interactive experience In Event of Moon Disaster.
JC: This incredible immersive artwork invites the visitor into a totally accurate 1969 English living room to watch an alternative version of one of the most momentous moments in history. Halsey Burgund and Francesca Panetta have perfectly replicated President Nixon reading a real speech written “in event of moon disaster.” It forces people to question everything about the world they see on screen. The piece provokes thought and discussion around artificial intelligence and sources we can trust. It was Tania Moore, our Chief Curator of Art, who suggested working with Burgund and Panetta to build an English version of In Event of Moon Disaster. What’s amazing as a museum director is seeing how children and young adults are automatically cynical of images and what they are watching, with total awareness that AI generation is prevalent on social media today. Older generations, meanwhile, are more concerned with the importance of the original lunar landing and the way seminal moments in history have affected our perceptions of human progress and technology.  

A: “The camera never lies” is a classic adage, and your show is about how photography has shaped our perceptions of history – for better and for worse. What’s your view on this?
JC: The photograph is now synonymous with memory. For many of us, the images on our phones are archives of our lives. In displaying and critiquing the most iconic pictures of the last 100 years, we are exploring the role of photography in our true understanding of history. The emotional power of the images in this exhibition is unparalleled. But it’s important to remember that they provide only one perspective on some incredibly complex cultural stories.

A: How does Liquid Gender fit into the narrative of the What Is Truth? programme?
JC: Are we who we think we are, or are we merely the product of the social context in which we grew up? Liquid Gender brings human identity under the spotlight, bringing global perspectives to individual biographies. The artists in this show beautifully illustrate the power of any individual’s ability to choose the right truth for themselves. AR: So much of how we identify, and present, is dictated by the contexts in which we live. Liquid Gender asks: can we escape the limitations imposed upon us and our bodies by others? I spoke before about how, for me, truth is immanent and produced through relations.  Liquid Gender highlights creatives who disrupt the idea that there is a “true”, “universal” way to be. They stake a claim for difference and challenge the Western Eurocentric model of binary gender perpetuated by colonialism. It’s an idea that has become so naturalised – a universal truth – and for many it can be challenging to see beyond. These artists, however, present something different. They show us that, through the lens of queer, Black and Indigenous futurism, alternative futures are possible.

A: Who are some of the artists included? What are they making, and why is their work crucial right now?
Rashaad Newsome, Leilah Babirye, Martine Gutierrez, Laryssa Machada and Antônio Vital Neto Pankararu bring a combination of techniques – performance, collage, sculpture and photography – and all feature portraiture and the body. Whilst they convey fluid concepts of gender, embrace difference and celebrate selfhood, the focus isn’t just on individuality – they tend to community too. These artists make their communities visible, tell their stories, and aim to build new possibilities. Sparking any kind of change is a collective responsibility and only works through collaboration. These pieces work together to address problems of limitation, repression and discrimination. But they also champion community. That’s why their work feels so optimistic: the imagined liberation isn’t solitary. These artists offer an urgent dose of buoyancy in the face of many global challenges. JC: They are united by their personal approach to artmaking, drawing on cultural inheritances from Mesoamerica, Uganda, the Amazon and US. In so doing, they express their own stories whilst contributing to an expansive global dialogue.

What do you hope audiences take away from this exhibition, and the season more broadly?
JC: The main thing I want them to take away is that the Sainsbury Centre is their favourite museum in the world! And that we are an open-armed, welcoming place in which anyone can explore a fundamental question like What Is Truth? in an enjoyable, inspiring and informative way. AR: I hope they come away with more questions! Audiences can then come up with their own solutions, rather than having a set answer given to them. Engaging with these artists and ideas has been so fantastic and eye-opening, and I’d love for people to come away feeling the same.

A: Do you think the future of human creativity is at risk? Or do you take a more optimistic view?
I certainly don’t think human creativity is at risk. Human creativity is the fundamental quality that defines our way of life. We will always be creative no matter where, and how, we live. That said, AI is an exceptionally powerful tool that has an ability to aggregate and overwhelm people if we are not careful. We need to be incredibly careful with how we control, shape and harness the role of AI in society. AR: I’m optimistic, too. It’s important to be critical and wary of the information we consume, but at the same time I believe that human creativity is so adaptable that these technological developments will just create new opportunities for expression. Take Rashaad Newsome, for instance, who as well as being exhibited in Liquid Gender is undertaking a residency at the Sainsbury Centre. AI is a key feature of their work, and they are using it to create interactive and imaginative experiences that allow people to engage with art anew.

What is Truth runs 17 February – 20 October | sainsburycentre.ac.uk

Image Credits:
1. Brendo Tupinambá, Photo: Laryssa Machada.
2. Martine Gutierrez, Demons, Tlazoteotl ‘Eater of Filth,’ p92 from Indigenous Woman, 2018. © Martine Gutierrez. Private Collection, DE; Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.
3. Martine Gutierrez, Demons, Xochipilli ‘The Flower Prince,’ p91 from Indigenous Woman, 2018. © Martine Gutierrez. Private Collection, NY; Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.
4. Richard Mosse, Poison Glen, 2012. ©Richard Mosse
5. Martine Gutierrez, Demons, Chin ‘Demon of Lust,’ p93 from Indigenous Woman, 2018. © Martine Gutierrez; Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
6. Martine Gutierrez, Demons, Yemaya ‘Goddess of the Living Ocean,’ p94 from Indigenous Woman, 2018. © Martine Gutierrez; Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.