Last week, Artsy published a listicle by Rhizome’s Aria Dean on the “10 Artistic Masterpieces Meant To Be Experienced Online,” introducing the publication’s readers (whoever they are) to the highlights of Net Art. Related to the ongoing exhibition and archive the Net Art Anthology, the listicle included some familiar faces such as Jayson Musson’s Art Thoughtz and Abe Linkoln and Jimpunk’s Screenfull. However, taken as a whole, the article made me think about the problematic determination of what exactly is (and isn’t) Net Art. It seems, at least to me, that the rather elitist label of Net Art is only applied when a piece is made by someone with an advanced creative arts degree with the intention of it being understood as “art.” But, what about viral memes? Tacky, overindulgent YouTube fan tribute videos? Recently constructed Tumblr blogs devoted to stanning Ted Bundy–or Zac Efron’s interpretation of the serial killer?
While these art objects may be incidental, they, too, deserve the designation of Net Art, as they are just begging for a cultural critic to take seriously this junk part of our visual culture. And in the spirit of investigating and widening the range of what is called Net Art, I want to focus on one of my favorite forgotten masterpieces–a classic, shall we say–that feels timely in our era of fake news. Archived under the title “Ron Paul Supporters Spray Vinegar at the Sky to ‘Kill’ Chemtrails,” the video was originally posted by the crazed heroine seen in the video in March of 2011, who, perhaps overwhelmed by the response this iconic video garnered, took it down. Thankfully, some intrepid YouTube-rs thought enough of this seminal film to save it for future generations.
While memes and shitposts come and go so fast it seems as if we barely have enough time to understand why they’re funny, there are some Internet stars that endure, burning bright across our smartphones and computer screens and singeing themselves on our memory like a vinegar crisp lawn. This nameless faceless Ron Paul supporter in this video is undoubtedly one of these figures, as is her belabored son who breathlessly fights with his mother through the over ten-minute long video. A glorious interpretation of small town Americana and the paranoid wackos that live within, if this isn’t video art, I don’t know what is. I’d watch it over and over again within a museum even if they refused, like many institutions, to give viewers a bench on which to sit. Why, this video just makes me want to raise a nozzle to the sky and spray!
Now, for some backstory, the video is a how-to guide for the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd to avoid being blasted by, what they believe are, chemtrails sprayed from planes as if we’re all dusted crops. Someone’s watched too many X-Files episodes. What are chemtrails you ask? Well, I’ll let writer Dennis Mersereau from the former Gawker affiliate The Vane explain: “The whole business of ‘chemtrails’ is a bunch of hokum perpetuated by people too lazy to understand real science, so they make up their own truth to make themselves feel smart. Chemtrails do not exist. The real phenomenon is called a contrail, short for condensation trails. Contrails form when hot, moist jet exhaust meets incredibly cold upper-atmospheric air and condenses almost immediately into a long, narrow cirrus cloud. The contrails stick around for a few minutes or a few hours depending on atmospheric conditions.” And if you thought Gawker was too dodgy and liberal to believe, even YouTube, on this video’s page, includes an entry from the Encyclopedia Britannica on contrails, hoping that the morons clicking to discover the winning vinegar recipe will stop and read a bit rather than listening to Alex Jones conspiracy nutsos. Unlikely.
The solution to chemtrails? A fine mist of vinegar spritzed into the atmosphere, reaching apparently 25,000 feet. Just like that, dearest Filthy Dreams readers! And this woman isn’t the only vinegar-wielding chemtrails warrior. Apparently, there are groups of them on Facebook, who also, unsurprisingly, seem to frequently overlap with the Flat Earthers. Of course.
But, let’s dig into this masterpiece itself. The film, and it is a film, is set in Everytown, USA. Like the beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, you can hear birds chirping in this sleepy suburb, a 1950s daydream of Americana, as the woman, who I’ll now refer to as Chemtrails Lady, bursts from her quaint front porch. With some digging, I discovered this was filmed in Utah, but it could really be anywhere in the United States. Witness the bland, pre-fab track homes in her neighborhood, the cut lawns, the wooden fences and the woman screeching at water vapor! It’s an intimate view of flyover country where families are ruining their lawns by shouting at the sky. While I can’t attest to the effectiveness of vinegar to combat chemtrails, I can, however, confirm that blasting vinegar all over your lawn isn’t great for the greenery, as long shots of her crisp brown patches of grass prove.
We first hear Chemtrails Lady’s voice as she demands of her son, who acts as, at once, her cameraman, director and detractor: “Can they hear me?” “Yeah,” he sighs in response as he takes close ups of her hand raising a green spray bottle to the sky. It’s really a David and Goliath story, if Goliath was naturally occurring condensation. With the sounds of manic spraying, Chemtrails Lady assures us that the chemtrails will break up with the vinegar, not just dissipating on their own because…science. At first, you think to yourself, I can’t watch ten minutes of this, but slowly and surely between the constant misting sounds and blurted mumbled dialogue like, “I hate chemtrails. I HATE EM!” and “I bet they’re blocking out the moon,” its inner genius unfolds.
Not only is this video a representation of conspiracy run wild in small town America, it’s also a family story as mother and son fight over editing decisions. “You don’t know, you caveman,” he says exasperated. Even though we can’t see the young man behind the camera, I know those eyes are rolling. What a nerd! “Do what I tell you,” she yells back, as he mumbles, “We are not the average family.” However, I would argue that they just might be as America turns to corners of the Internet to create their own kooky echo chambers. Why they even have a family dog who barks at the fence, begging for someone to show him mercy as he’s quite likely covered in vinegar. I bet they’re everyone’s favorite neighbors.
Chemtrails Lady’s son’s directorial vision is somewhat Warholian with his weird zooms, nauseating jostling movements and avant-garde camera angles. Someone get this kid into Yale! Toward the end of this epic magnum opus, however, the artistic choices become transcendent as a Muse song “Uprising” randomly kicks in. Muse would be the choice of conspiracy maniacs, fighting “the man” one spray bottle at a time. As the music builds, it drowns out Chemtrails Lady’s rambling monologue about how “every time I do this, I can’t believe it.” Me neither, honey! Finally, the video ends with a black screen emblazoned with the words, “Dear government, SUCK IT!” You tell em!
Ultimately, this viral video is a jarring statement of the boredom, crackpot theories and cognitive dissonance of Middle America, one that has become more relevant in the intervening years. At least to me, there is a direct correlation to be made between these chemtrail theorists ranting in their Facebook groups in the early 2010’s and the belief in Russian bot-manufactured fake news that drove these same white Middle American suburb-dwellers to vote for Trump. As we’ve seen recently with the Trump supporters racist desire for a wall to combat immigration, talking in circles to defend their leader’s position at all costs, there’s a willingness to parrot clearly incorrect information, in particular Trump’s boasts about his presidency’s accomplishments (none).
Much of this comes from the echo chambers these loonies have built for themselves, both online and IRL, which mirror to the ones previously constructed by the libertarian chemtrail people. As Mersereau writes on The Vane, “The system they’ve set up online is actually pretty interesting; a self-referential circlejerk, if you will. Person A writes a completely baseless article ‘confirming’ all of their fears and suspicions. Person B cites Person A as proof. Person C cites person B. Then Person A turns around and says ‘see! Person C said it too! I’m not crazy!’ It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of anti-science.” But rather than just a segment of online psychotic behavior, this self-perpetuating cycle has reached the highest office in the land, spouting xenophobic batshittery from a cult-like leader who perpetuated the birther conspiracy during the same era as Chemtrails Lady.
But this video is not only significant in its connection to the American perspective that would finally drive Trump into the White House. It is also a connection to the aesthetic of conservative camp running rampant during this administration. Of course, recently, I’ve been trying to define this renaissance of conservative camp and this video is essential to its history. Though not conservative camp writ large, I’d term this libertarian camp or conspiracy camp, a special brand of camp derived from harebrained Facebook groups, Twitter bots, Alex Jones, Reddit and other far-reaching corners of the Internet. Boasting an over-the-top theatricality and a manic belief in easily dismissed theories, combined into a hilarious form of self-satire, libertarian or conspiracy camp seems closer to this era’s particular and peculiar brand of conservative camp than past monuments of conservative camp like say, Sarah Palin conducting an interview in front of a turkey’s exsanguination or Nancy Reagan’s determined belief in astrology. Though these types are now listening to a certain TRESemme- shellacked president, the foundation of our contemporary jarring version of camp seems to be on display here.
So let’s hold our squeeze-y bottles to the sky and scream, “Suck it!”