Day 6

Provocative artist targeted by Pizzagate trolls

Decades ago, a provocative British artist, Maria Marshall, created art featuring children smoking and shooting guns. As those pieces are currently on exhibit in Washington, D.C., conspiracy theorists are on the attack.
In this screen capture from Maria Marshall's film "When I Grow Up I Want To Be A Cooker," a young child is seen smoking. (Maria Marshall)

Maria Marshall is an internationally-recognized British artist. Her work is provocative and meant to create conversation.

"Future Perfect," a 1999 photo by artist Maria Marshall. (Maria Marshall)
But the conversation surrounding her work of late is not what she would ever have predicted or desired.

That's because Marshall's art is currently being targeted by the conspiracy theorist behind the Pizzagate YouTube channel.

Since 1999, Marshall has been using her children in her films and artwork. Her work is currently on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. as part of its 30th anniversary "Revival" exhibit.

Some of Marshall's work is owned and loaned by well-known art collector Tony Podesta, which is likely how it caught the attention of Pizzagate trolls.

What you're looking at isn't necessarily what you think it is.- Maria Marshall


When fake news becomes real

Tony Podesta is the brother of John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Last autumn, conspiracy theorists spread bogus online stories that John Podesta and Hillary Clinton were part of a child sex slave ring operating out of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C.

Pizzagate, as it was dubbed, gained international attention in December after a North Carolina man drove to the pizza shop and fired a military-style assault rifle at the restaurant. No one was injured in the shooting, and the gunman, Edgar Maddison Welch, said he was trying to save the children caught up in the ring.

The entire sex slave story was fake, and Welch has since apologized for the shooting. On June 22nd, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

His arrest, however, has not stopped the person behind the Pizzagate YouTube channel. The channel has 8,000 followers and many of those followers are now sending hate mail and threats to Marshall.

The creator of the YouTube channel is even calling for Marshall's children to be taken away.

In this Dec. 4, 2016 file photo, Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police in Washington. Welch, who walked into a Washington pizzeria with an assault rifle to investigate internet rumors dubbed "pizzagate." (AP Photo/Sathi Soma)

Pizzagate lives on

"I Will Be 5 In 200 Days," by Maria Marshall. (Maria Marshall)
Two videos are at the centre of the controversy. Both feature one of Marshall's sons, who is now in his early 20s.

One video, "When I Grow Up I Want To Be A Cooker," shows her young son seemingly smoking a cigarette. The other video under attack is "I Saw You Crying," in which her son appears to fire a gun.

"It draws the viewer into engaging in it on a very emotional level," says Marshall.

The Pizzagate trolls are calling for Marshall's children to be removed from her custody because she is harming them.

Both of her children are now adults.

"The person who's attacking me obviously feels that there's a lot of power in the work," says Marshall.


The suspension of disbelief

Of her work, Marshall says she is particularly concerned with the "suspension of disbelief. Meaning that what you're looking at isn't necessarily what you think it is."

Marshall says she suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of her second child.

"My work has always been close to any fear that I've had and at that point I was depressed and had paranoia," explains Marshall. "So I started making work that was cathartic."

It's important that artists are able to say what they have to say.- Maria Marshall

She says creating work that dealt with her fears helped make those fears go away. One of her anxieties was about the safety of her children.

"In one respect, I think that the work is really very, very successful in order to be able to create that kind of emotional response [from the Pizzagate trolls]," says Marshall. "On the other hand, we have a man who has had no intention of actually finding out what that work's about."

"In this instance, it's very dangerous to have a point of view that's so destructive," says Marshall.

A young boy is seen shooting a gun in Maria Marshall's film "I Saw You Crying." (Maria Marshall)

She goes on to say that it's important for artists to have the freedom to express their views.

She says there is not much she can do about nasty emails, but she does hope that her story will provoke a conversation about the power of online conspiracy theories.

"He is putting as much fear as he can out into the public domain in order for him to get hits on his site."

Marshall says she's thankful for the support of the museum and her fellow artists, who are defending her work.

"It's important that artists are able to say what they have to say, and it is the ones who say it the best that get the most attention."

To hear the full interview with Maria Marshall, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.