Wolfgang Tillmans Explores the Role of Art in a Post-Truth World

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I started a project for an installation called “Truth Study Center” in 2005. I juxtaposed texts of great lucidity and awareness with absurd, humorous and also crazy false statements. All of this was, of course, at a time when no one talked about post-truth or fake news. As this became the center of all politics, I realized it is now everywhere, and I don’t need to juxtapose these different claims because they are so out in the open.

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A page from “What Is Different?,” a series of essays and interviews with activists, academics and politicians, edited by Mr. Tillmans and interspersed with his photographs. Credit Sternberg Press

I wanted to go further and look at the science behind it. Around 2014, I read about the backfire effect, first described by Brendan Nyhan and his colleagues, which describes what people who believe in a falsehood do when shown a collection of facts that contradict their opinion. It doesn’t shift their opinion to the more truthful or factual, but instead it actually reinforces their belief in the falsehood.

There’s a lot of text in the book, but it’s also an art book. How do you view the relationship between art and politics?

I love that art is useless and that it has no purpose. That makes art so incredibly powerful. And so, I don’t think one should turn to artists instantly and ask, “What are they saying?” I think, really, every private person should take part in democracy, because if you don’t, others choose for you.

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Mr. Tillmans’ photographs are juxtaposed with social media posts and other material gathered from the internet. Credit Sternberg Press

I think we all have to ask ourselves if there are people who have nothing else to do but push against our liberal society, who is actually defending it if we are not. If you feel an urgency and you don’t act upon it, then that is the whole problem in a nutshell.

In 2016, you produced a series of posters to campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union, ahead of the referendum here. What is your view on what has happened since?

The reason I felt such urgency to rebel against Brexit has, of course, to do with my 28 years living in England and Germany, but also because I really predicted at the time that it will be all about language. It will turn into an ugly blame game, and when the promises of a glorious post-Brexit future do not turn out right, no one will say “Well, maybe we got it wrong.”

Even though I’m not campaigning in the U.K. anymore, I really think anything that could stop Brexit is a good thing. Even though it would be seen as anti-democratic, I think the pain and the antagonism in language and the sentiments of this divorce is more harmful.

What were you most surprised by when putting together this collection?

I learned how, for the last 15 years or so in the Western world, authoritarian people have been kept widely at bay. They have had to accept feminist, nonracist and L.G.B.T. progress, social justice, international cooperation and anti-nationalism. They had to accept all of that, and things in society changed for the better so dramatically because individuals believed in it and spoke up for it. So one should see it this way around: Trump being in power and Brexit succeeding is not the reason for despair, but it is really a backlash to 50 years of civil rights and liberal progress.

What conversations do you hope the work will provoke?

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The starting point for “What Is Different?” is the theory of “the backfire effect,” which “describes what people who believe in a falsehood do when shown a collection of facts that contradict their opinion,” Mr. Tillmans said. Credit Sternberg Press

An opening up to uncomfortable questions about oneself. On the second-to-last page is a collage text piece with a sentence written on it: “How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?” This sense of humility, I think, is the precondition for positive change because without humility, it’s so easy to lose perspective. The moment I say this, alarm bells go off in my head; I should not even talk about humility in a confident way because that isn’t humble.

What then is the role of art is in a post-truth world?

We call it that, “post-truth,” but we should call it “lies” — an era where some people are not ashamed to openly lie for their own ends.

I do believe that the true nature of things comes out, and that’s why intentions in art are always revealed in the work. If artists are interested in their fellow humans and in this society, that will also come out in the work. I guess this interest is also called solidarity. Again, I don’t feel like artists should particularly be singled out, but we all need to question if we show enough solidarity with our fellow humans.

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