The art of fake news
For a few weeks earlier this summer, Chicago-based artist James Pepper Kelly became a temporary fixture at area coffee houses and bars, picking local denizens’ brains about their hopes, dreams, concerns and stories revolving around the city of Springfield. Kelly was one of the first artists to participate in the Springfield Art Association’s recently minted Residency for Visual Artists program and when he wasn’t interacting with townies he was deep in research at Lincoln Library or poring through public records. He was back in town Sunday to distribute the end product of his time here – a convincing-looking replica of the State Journal-Register that reads like a broadsheet from an alternate universe featuring the near-utopian front page headline “Rauner, Madigan removed.”
“Everyone I talked to was super-generous,” said Kelly during a break from distributing his handiwork around Springfield on Sunday afternoon. “They were generous with their opinions and about spending time with me. I learned a lot from everyone that I talked to.” Kelly explained that the intent of the paper he created, far from the Onion-style parody of central Illinois foibles one might expect, instead reflects the town that Springfield could be, based on the things its residence shared with him. “What I realized, working on it over time, was that there were so many more amazing details and stories than I will ever be able to use,” he said, “but I think [the finished product] distills a lot of the conversations in broader strokes.”
Kelly says he sees the paper as a call to action, and it does seem like a sort of broadsheet sequel to Vachel Lindsay’s Golden Book of Springfield, one that implicitly counters Lindsay’s fanciful vision of a 21st-century Springfieldian utopia with a more activist approach. “I’m faking fake news,” he said. “It’s got all these speculative versions of reality of the future of what Springfield could be, what people want it to be. When people read this, I don’t want there to be this cynical ‘gotcha!’ at the end of the stories.” Instead, many of the articles conclude with phone numbers for government offices and other public servants for readers to contact. “That way people can get to the end and actually do something about it.” Some of the stories, including one about basketball courts in Enos Park, are straight reporting based on Kelly’s research. “There’s a quote from Jim Langfelder that I pulled straight from a real SJ-R article from just three or four days [before printing]. It’s an overall blending of truth and fiction.”
The process of getting the papers around town was involved. “I left Chicago at 5 a.m. and rode down the interstate with my wife in the side-seat where she was rolling and rubber-banding several hundred copies. We had the backseat overflowing with newspapers.” They arrived at 11:30 a.m. and placed copies in some SJ-R vending machines downtown. “I thought a lot about the ethics of this – I wanted to put these into the machines but I didn’t want people paying and not getting the actual paper they paid for.” He developed a process which involved taking the real State Journal-Register copies and folding them inside out, wrapping them in his alternate version. “You would still get all the real content – I didn’t want to burn anyone!”
The most ambitious and physically demanding part of the distribution process was making home-deliveries throughout the Enos Park neighborhood (home of the SAA grounds where Kelly was housed during his residency). “My wife would drive the car with one tote bag full of papers and I’d run alongside with another one and we threw them on people’s porches – we did several hundred papers on people’s lawns throughout the neighborhood.”
Most of the time he just ditched the papers and left because he didn’t want to hang around and make it awkward, Kelly said. “There were a couple times I was around when people saw it and it was fun to watch some double-takes – they would glance at it and walk away and then come back 20 seconds later, going, ‘What? What does this mean?’”
Contact Scott Faingold at email@example.com.