At the sixteenth century’s onset, Irish bishop and idealist philosopher George Berkley waded into the hot epistemological debate of the day. His solution to the problem of whether non-mind dependent objects and extended material reality existed was to maintain matter didn’t exist outside of the mind. According to Berkley the world sprung into existence, like an opened pop-up book, when we opened our eyes. Whenever we closed them it disappeared. The problem was how human beings, composed of matter as they are, were not hurtling in and out of existence when nobody was around to see them. His answer was that God, the celestial insomniac, never closed his eyes.
In Belief, Thomson and Craighead’s thirteen minute, two-screen film installation, a selection of YouTube footage (video blogs and webcam rants) covers the same irrational territory Berkley’s leap from empirical deduction to divine speculation produced. Through a survey of suspect, conspiratorial, and fantastic opinions Belief, the last desktop documentary of Thomson and Craighead’s ‘Flat Earth Trilogy’, presents a compelling illustration of how the internet and trends of cultural commentary, confession and complaint it has birthed, flattens reality into a series of soapbox moments.
The focus is on what Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen term inferential beliefs: ‘beliefs that go beyond directly observable events’. Here, untied from a material base, belief becomes the foundation for unquestioned and unquestionable faith in transcendental powers. As such, the psychological state belief signifies becomes less about the acceptance of truth based on evaluated probabilities – i.e. my key has opened this door every time I’ve used it, so I believe it will now –, and more about the conviction that immaterial worlds and forces exist, and that they effect life in the material world. Amongst Satanism, reincarnation, fairies and the power of positive mental visualisation, the source of this discarnate energy or force is centralised in God.
In one excerpt an American Christian girl sees the 2011 magnitude 9 earthquake, resulting tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan, as evidence of God answering prayers. ‘Any place where there is an atheist, we have been praying for God to open their eyes’ she beams, ‘and just a few days later […] God shook the country of Japan […] grabbed it by the shoulders and said, “hey look I’m here”’. In another a voice off camera prompts a child to recite the correct responses to questions of Muslim theology. ‘Who are strucked (sic) by Allah’s wrath’ it barks, ‘the Jews’ she replies.
This is the dangerous territory resulting from what Austro-British philosopherKarl Popper called unfalsifiable observation. According to Popper ‘in so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality’. Popper’s theory of falsifiability stipulates any idea, assertion or opinion about the real world – that all swans are white for example – can theoretically be refuted by the production of some real evidence to the contrary. This knowledge, referred to as falsifiable, speaks about the material world. On the opposite end of the falsifiability spectrum are unfalsifiable ideas: ideas that cannot be questioned, doubted or refuted by any evidence, hypothetical or real, and therefore cannot relate to the real world. Religion represents the supreme example of unfalsifiability. What Belief reveals are the disturbing real world observations religious zealots make in irrational leaps of faith, and the conditions of adamantine belief that makes this possible.
Belief, like its predecessors Flat Earth, 2007, and A Short Film About War, 2009-10, uses found footage interspersed with animations of earth seen from above. In each film the viewer, given a global perspective, is dislodged from the usual limitations of grounded experience and raised up into omnipresence. We see the world, through each hyper-transversal of our blue marble – zooming in and zooming out – not as a complicated, unknowable mess of particularities, but as a digestible mass of activity.
As Belief scans locations separated by hundreds of miles in seconds, we are made to browse through human experience, or rather the public forms of communication and human expression that dominate the web. This accelerated traversal is both close to our perceptions of godly omniscience (all seeing, all knowing) and, rather banally, close to our own habits of surfing the web: clicking on information from around the world, half digesting videos, reading small portions of text, blogs and news reports.
In situ Belief features a compass projected onto a second, floor based screen. With each clip the compass moves to indicate the direction from where the footage originated, as well as telling the viewer how far they currently are from what is displayed on screen. Allowing audiences to experience the sensation of here and elsewhere, being at once in a gallery or domestic environment and simultaneously connected to the world, online and off, is a phenomenon Thomson and Craighead’s works access with ease. And, by dwelling on the thin line between immaterial and material reality that faith produces, Belief brings an apt close to the ‘Flat Earth Trilogy’: a trio of astral projections mapping the globe via the worldwide web.