Writer Nora Khan and artist Steven Warwick combed through seminal episodes of The X- Files to explore the evolving climate of fear during the Clinton era. This period was remarkable, marking the birth of the internet and networked communication within an increasingly dense cloud of paranoia. The X-Files spoke directly to the peculiar psychological anxiety of this complex time: post-Cold War fear and pre-9/11 millennial optimism. It tracked a collective need for an enemy of the state, manifested in earnest (often comical) urban legends of bogeymen and countless hybrid freaks. Fear of aliens, ghosts and the paranormal replaced fear of Communism, and prefaced our current Islamophobic climate. The destabilising force of neoliberalism hovers throughout, an undetected invisible man in the room.
The X-Files posited fear as an inherent quality of domestic life in America, and its fear index was crucially linked to use and representation of the early internet. It became one of the first television series with a global internet fan base, perfectly suited for its target demographic: suburban teenagers and young adults who were learning to use the internet, logging-on to manic chat rooms and dedicated forums to discuss episode content, speculate on theories, and come up with urban legends of their own. (There is a through line to the present, as conspiracy theories discussed on those vanguard message boards eerily echo today’s fake news stories perpetuated by the alt-right.) As the show developed, characters become more engaged with the internet, using it to navigate an increasingly uncertain world, and sort and pick through the inexplicable and weird. In the early internet's frontier space, paranoiac narratives mapping the outside world could circulate with abandon, picked up and believed, or discarded.
Fear Indexing the X-Files was presented at ICA London in the fall of 2016, as part of the PAN x ICA performances, and first read at UnionDocs in New York City. In 2017, it will be published by Primary Information. This is the German premiere.
Nora Khan is a writer and currently a research resident within Eyebeam’s Research Residency until October 2017. She is contributing editor at Rhizome, based out of the New Museum, and a recipient of the Thoma Foundation 2016 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art for an emerging arts writer, awarded by the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation.
Steven Warwick is a British artist, musician and writer residing in Berlin. His practice includes durational performance installations, plays and films using the construction of situations and language. He also makes music as Heatsick and under his own name – the latest release, Nadir, appeared recently on PAN.
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