The Internet Is Mad About a Hunter Biden Art Show That Doesn't Exist

Through a series of fake news stories spread on social media, artist Brad Troemel blurs the line between performance art and conspiracy theory.
July 15, 2021, 1:00pm
Two black and blue statues stand in an empty classroom holding white humanoid figures.

Scandal is brewing at Hunter Biden's new Manhattan art gallery, where a collaboration with the prolific street artist KAWS is being interpreted as pro-cop propaganda. At least, that's what an assortment of angry social media posts would have us believe. 

In “Defend Our Future,” large sculptures of KAWS' trademark vinyl figures, painted black with one bold, blue stripe running from head to toe, care for smaller, pure-white KAWS figures. Metaphorically, these "Blue Lives Matter" figures are white saviors.

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But there's one problem with the outrage: this artwork doesn't exist. Neither does the gallery (though Hunter Biden does paint), nor any of the other scandals associated with the gallery, called Playground. Among those scandals: Pete Buttigeig was supposedly spotted at a private opening having an affair with a woman, and the KAWS work may have been manufactured in a private prison. 

These fictional developments, documented on the Instagram accounts @maincharactersandevents, @playgroundcanalstreet, and @victimstrong, are the invention of artist Brad Troemel, whose landmark project, a Tumblr blog collective called “JOGGING,” culminated in 2016 with a glut of right wing, anti-Obama conspiracy theories.

Back then, Troemel’s work, co-created with the artist Edward Marshall Shenk, took the format of Boomer memes, pixelated images with multiple font faces and poorly-cropped inserts from TV shows like Family Guy. They sprung from real conspiracy theories that circulated Reddit and 4Chan, like 9/11 revisionist documentary Loose Change, or Christian conservative Christine Weick’s theory that Monster energy drinks bear the symbol of the beast. Troemel’s Instagrams are a revised iteration of that work, updated for today’s internet culture.

His photoshopped posts and staged Instagram Stories mostly take the form of blog headlines and social media screenshots, though a convincing clip from a fictional podcast, “The Straight Talk Express,” guest starring Brace Belden from the TrueAnon Podcast, make the narrative more believable. Troemel is trying to comment on the internet's disinformation, social media, and media ecosystems. His fictional scandal includes internet figures who are only celebrities to those who are Extremely Online, like Caroline Calloway, who, in this world, 3D printed a bootleg version of the KAWS toy, modified into a dildo, and shared exclusive videos to her OnlyFans. Every action has a reaction, each post builds upon the previous, and everything in @maincharactersandevents points back to Hunter Biden.

“Everyone is in on it,” Brian Friedberg, Senior Researcher at Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, told Motherboard. Friedberg, who has been following Troemel’s work for years, was telling me how Calloway became such a major player in the story. But when I tried to confirm whether or not these minor celebrities had actually colluded with Troemel, I only hit dead ends. In the spirit of art world gossip, which fuels the content on @maincharactersandevents, Friedberg was relaying second-hand information heard through a friend. I tried to reach out to Troemel for more details, but he did not respond to my messages.

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“I feel like he has depicted an artistic representation of going down a rabbit hole,” Friedberg said, and one way to interact with Troemel’s project is to dive down the rabbit hole yourself. To unravel the mysteries of @maincharactersandevents, I read every post, skimmed the comments, visited tagged profiles, and Googled the gossip to see if any reputable publications had actually reported on them. None of it was real.

Georges Bergès Gallery, which represents Biden, did not respond to a request for comment.

Knowing Troemel’s work, I had already suspected that the Instagram account was a hoax, but others can easily catch on because the project jumps the shark numerous times. If Pete Buttegeig coming out as heterosexual on the cover of Time didn’t signal it, then Buttegeig’s private prison for the cancelled Spectrum Correctional Center should have done it. If you go to the @maincharactersandevents instagram account and read the posts chronologically, the story is linear and easy to follow.

But Troemel understands Instagram, and knows that when the posts come up in a feed organically, removed from the context of the entire story, they’re easily mistaken for reality. When the first images of “Defend Our Future” hit the web, the comments were a mix of outrage and admiration. Loyal fans played along (“Need to get a mini statue for my kaws [sic] mantle. #backtheblue #copwife”), whereas unsuspecting users, perhaps led to the feed via a friend’s Instagram Story, expressed disappointment or outrage (“we live in a hellscape!!” and “how the fuck is this real.”) If only they had dived into the rabbit hole before commenting. 

Even fake memes can be harmful—they’re reproduced, remixed, and reshared until their origins become uncertain, and become reference points for future discussions. Fake memes especially thrive on social media, where people can work together to explore the depths of a rabbit hole. Through this community they begin to believe in their own mythology, even to the point where they alienate friends and family.

But unlike the dark world of 8Chan, the narrative of @maincharactersandevents is relatively shallow and too focused on the insular art world. Even though Troemel’s network of accounts continues to expand, you only need to follow a link or two to discover Troemel as the originator of the memes, and the rabbit hole ends 

If Troemel had taken pains to obscure his identity, maybe he could become the art world’s very own Q. Instead, he’s fancied himself a goofy and especially prolific memelord.