(Roughly) Daily

“Everyone loves a conspiracy”*…

An anonymous image used as the face of the Luther Blissett Project

As the US Capitol was overwhelmed by Donald Trump supporters in early January, one figure stood out: with his painted face, bare chest, fur hat and American flag-draped spear, Jake Angeli became one of the most photographed rioters of the day. He is also known as the “QAnon Shaman” and has been seen waving a “Q sent me” placard in other protests.

QAnon is America’s most dangerous conspiracy theory, and if you pull hard enough on its threads, the whole tangled mess lands, somehow, at the feet of a group of Italian artists. It might sound like a conspiracy within a conspiracy, but, as Buzzfeed first reported in 2018, chances are that QAnon, at the start at least, took inspiration from an amorphous organisation of leftist artists who, for most of the mid-1990s, called themselves Luther Blissett after the 1980s English footballer.

They used the Watford and England striker’s name as a nom de plume, perpetrating countless media hoaxes, pranks and art interventions. They started raves on trams that turned into riots, they released albums, wrote books and manifestos, they mocked, questioned and undermined the mainstream, and they grew and grew until hundreds of people around the world were calling themselves Luther Blissett.

In the process, with their media-jamming hoaxes, they helped lay the groundwork for QAnon, a conspiracy theory about a secret satanic cabal of child abusers which controls the world. During the 2016 presidential elections, it famously gave rise to the rumour that Hillary Clinton ran a paedophile ring in a pizza parlour, Comet Ping Pong. More recently, QAnon has become a mainstay of far-right protests and riots, including the US Capitol insurrection.

Among Luther Blissett’s original ranks you will find leading contemporary artists including Eva and Franco Mattes, critical theorists such as Matteo Pasquinelli, and writers like Stewart Home.

The Luther Blissett Project (LBP) was an exercise in anonymity, in group creativity, in forcing left-wing ideals into the mainstream. And it would have remained a neat quirk of 1990s Italian cultural history if the group had not also released Q, a best-selling novel translated into multiple languages and published across the world.

The links between QAnon and Q extend far beyond alphabetic similarities. The book follows a subversive heretic as he joins a series of revolts across 16th-century Europe. Throughout, he is pursued relentlessly by a Papist agent called Q, a figure who manipulates facts and spreads disinformation to sow seeds of doubt in society and help maintain the dominance of the church, infiltrating and sabotaging every revolt, every uprising.

Sound familiar? It should, because the Q of today’s QAnon has a similar origin story, and similar methods. QAnon’s Q is a supposed White House insider, who in October 2017 began posting farfetched but incredibly popular “insider” information from the White House on the 4chan message board. Paedophilia, the Rothschilds, an impending “storm”, QAnon has multiple targets and beliefs…

From ritual abuse to secret government insiders and media hoaxes, the links between QAnon and LBP are striking. The LBP ended in 1999, with five of the founding members (Roberto Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Luca Di Meo, Federico Guglielmi and Riccardo Pedrini) going on to form the Wu Ming Foundation, a writer’s collective. Wu Ming 1 (all the authors use Wu Ming as a nom de plume) thinks the similarities are too obvious to ignore: “If they are coincidences, well, there’s a huge amount of them and they’re impressive,” he says…

An anonymous left-wing art group known in the 1990s as Luther Blissett are wondering what they have unwittingly helped create: “QAnon: the Italian artists who may have inspired America’s most dangerous conspiracy theory.” (Soft paywall: do read it all.)

For more on conspiracy theories as a cultural and political phenomenon: “The enduring allure of conspiracies.”

* A man who should know: Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code

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As we get the joke, we might spare a thought for Charlemagne; he died on this date in 814.  A ruler who united the majority of western and central Europe (first as King of the Franks, then also King of the Lombards, finally adding Emperor of the Romans), he was the first recognized emperor to rule from western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier; the expanded Frankish state that he founded is called the Carolingian Empire, the predecessor to the Holy Roman Empire.

In 789, he began the establishment of schools teaching the elements of mathematics, grammar, music, and ecclesiastic subjects; every monastery and abbey in his realm was expected to have a school for the education of the boys of the surrounding villages.  The tradition of learning he initiated helped fuel the expansion of medieval scholarship in the 12th-century Renaissance.

Charlemagne is considered the father of modern Europe. At the same time, in accepting Pope Leo’s investiture, he set up ages of conflict: Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor, though intended to represent the continuation of the unbroken line of Emperors from Augustus, had the effect of creating up two separate (and often opposing) Empires– the Roman and the Byzantine– with two separate claims to imperial authority. It led to war in 802, and for centuries to come, the Emperors of both West and East would make competing claims of sovereignty over the whole.

Pope Leo III, crowning Charlemagne Emperor

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