Wolfgang Tillmans was one of the most vocal members of the British art world to oppose Brexit when he set up his own campaign to support the pro- European vote in the 2016 EU referendum. Now he is addressing the wider implications of our Trumpian post-truth, imminent Brexit era. On 15 March, at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Tillmans was in conversation with the writer and critic Sean O’Hagan at the launch of this year’s edition of Jahresring—the long-running journal for contemporary art and culture—which Tillmans has guest edited and made into an artist’s book. The book contains a number of interviews with politicians, scientists and various experts on the current status quo, interwoven with Tillmans’ own pictures, found images and press clippings.
As Tillmans himself explained, his edition takes “the backfire effect” as its starting point. This is a term which describes a phenomenon first termed by US political scientists whereby people believe in a falsehood, even when shown evidence to the contrary—in fact, such evidence paradoxically only reinforces belief in the fallacy. This is relatively harmless when applied to a few conspiracy theorists but potentially catastrophic when, as now or in 1930s Germany, it manifests itself in large parts of the population. As Tillmans puts it, “When 36% of the electorate is not reachable by facts, we are on a very slippery slope.”
What is Different is an important, wide-ranging book, put together by a thoughtful, politically engaged artist. The ICA conversation looked backwards and forwards in time, repeatedly returned to the effectiveness of art, and heralded the fact that, in Tillmans’ words, “liberal democracy is the only hope we have!” When pushed, the artist did confess that, especially in its silence over the implications of Brexit, he found the whole arts sector “cowardly”, declaring that “it would be so amazing if someone like Adele would just say something!” But he also raised the spirits of the rapt youthful audience by saying that, for him, “hedonism and activism were, and are not exclusive,” which was received with a ripple of grateful applause.