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Four Mind-Bending Things 'The X-Files' Taught Us About the Bill Clinton Era

Berlin-based producer Heatsick explored the cult TV show as part of PAN's takeover of London's ICA.

by Aurora Mitchell
Oct 11 2016, 4:50pm

All images courtesy of PAN/ICA

On October 4-5, Berlin-based label PAN took over London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) with a program of lectures, performances, and screenings packed with enough information to turn your mind inside out. PAN has long been at the forefront of music and technology—last year, they released a conceptual album from Aaron David Ross on an SD card, and this year TCF will make his debut on the label by publicizing his DNA. Their two-day collaboration with the ICA was similarly eclectic, spanning M.E.S.H. and Aleksandra Domanović's collaborative audio-visual show on DNA structures, to a quadrophonic live set from Lee Gamble based on 40 pitched and decomposed patterns.

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One of the program's highlights was a highly anticipated presentation titled "Fear Indexing The X-Files" on October 5 by producer Steven Warwick (AKA Heatsick) and writer Nora Khan. Armed with a slideshow of both humorous and ghastly stills from the show, Warwick sat in the ICA theatre ruminating on the various ways fear was depicted throughout the series—from the xenophobic paranoia of small town America to 90s anxieties over unsafe sex and AIDS.

As Warwick's low rumble rippled through the room, even those who had never watched the show were captivated by his and Khan's analysis, which used several seminal episodes to explore "how The X-Files posited fear as an inherent quality of domestic life in America."

Below are edited excerpts from Warwick and Khan's presentation, arranged according to several distinctly "unsafe" spaces—from seedy nightclubs to online chatrooms to the American suburbs—that the show frequently depicted as being under threat.

The audience at a PAN lecture

1. Nightclubs were depicted as dangerous spaces where unsafe sex could lead to AIDS.

Steven Warwick: "The problematically-titled 'Gender Bender' episode finds Mulder and Scully investigating a group called The Kindred—a group of Amish [people] who've been intermarrying for generations, keeping to themselves. One leaves the fold to become a very happy, transgender murderer who frequents nightclubs and kills through seduction. The episode plays with distinctly 90s-era anxieties about safe sex. Clubs were represented as dangerous spaces where killers lurk, and unsafe sex and one night stands with strangers can lead to AIDS. The urban myth of AIDS Mary took root at this time.

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Episode 'DPO' is about a Gen X that conducts lightning and can electrocute people at will. He's intently shown watching a chat show about misfit teens that are into piercings and sadomasochism. The episode recalls a Phil Donoghue episode, 'Where Is Your Child?' Covering the outrageous hedonism of 90s queer New York City club kids, 'DPO' is notable for its self-conscious replication of its target demographic."

2. The internet was a place for conspiracy theories and paranoid narratives to flourish.

"Of the many spaces in the show, the internet is potentially the most dramatic. It was often the source of many plotlines in the show, and outside the show was the home to one of the first real, flourishing, lasting fan cultures online. As The X Files developed over successive seasons, it became more engaged with the internet, using it to construct theories, navigate an increasingly uncertain world, and pick through the inexplicable and weird. In this way, the internet was a meaning-making tool, an accomplice, or a map to the outside. There was plenty of space for self-made conspiracy theories and paranoiac narratives to circulate in abandon—to be picked up, believed, dropped, reexamined and reworked.

The early internet was often shown as a tool to map the unknown world in The X Files. The series was perfectly suited for its target demographic: Gen X suburban teenagers and adults who were learning to use the internet for the first time, logging onto dedicated forums and chat rooms to discuss episode content, to speculate on the theories and their basis in the real world, and come up with urban legends and creepypasta of their own.

The series reflected a wider pervasive fear and paranoia about government oversight. Today, with our harsh context of post-Snowden fallouts, Wikileaks revelations, and the collapse of the great firewall of China, the show's fear of databasing and privacy violations seems almost quaint."

A scene from The X-Files

3. Walled-off interior spaces were often less safe than they seemed.

"The X Files posited interior space—inside the home, within the walls, within computers—as a threat. Sexual predators reach out through the screen; they can also reach through vents, toilets, wall openings. Seemingly banal and safe in space, one's home in one's kingdom becomes a minefield of anxiety and terror.

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'Squeeze'/'Tooms' is a two-parter in one of the series' most memorable and terrifying installments, describing a serial killer [named Tooms] who hibernates every 30 years with five livers he's harvested to subsist on. Tooms is an animal control worker from Baltimore [who is] able to stretch and morph his body to pass through the smallest air vents. Watching Tooms in his prison cell, Mulder notes how people invest in bars on the window and high-tech security systems, but it isn't enough for such fluid, abnormal threats. There is no space that you can ever fully protect."

4. Domestic sanctuaries and small towns were constantly under threat from outside (and alien) forces.

"The X Files emerged in a unique period between the residue of Cold War fears and pre-9/11 millennial optimism. The 1990s were a time when pluralistic societies were starting to consider globalisation and networked communication.

The series worked psychological anxieties at this complex time. The show allowed viewers to monitor the collective need for an enemy of the state... Aliens, ghosts and the paranormal replaced communism and prefaced the current Islamophobic climate while the destabilising force of neoliberalism remains an undetected, invisible man in the room.

In The X Files, terror was a characteristic of the domestic space. Stateside, it existed within your house, right on the block, and easily in the safety of the suburbs. The narrative plot line revolved around an overlying alien colonist myth arc in which the US government is involved in an alien/human hybrid-cloning project, resistant to alien colonization, frequently interspersed with monster of the week episodes playing on the fears all for dramatic relief.

Small-town paranoia will remain an underlying, strong theme in every season—locals are most suspicious of outside forces meddling with the existing social order. However, no matter how vigilant citizens are, the enemy can lurk in a dark corner of one's home.

The X Files allowed 90s viewers to view America as its own enemy. In the absence of an external threat, the citizens could gather around, there must always be an enemy out there whether home grown, foreign born or space relayed. Jihadism replaced communism and aliens were a terror threat. America set out into the world to find non-existent weapons of mass destructions. The cycle continues to produce its bogeyman, both real and imagined."

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