Art News

Are DIA Conspiracies Denver's Greatest Work of Public Art?

A mutant swarm of conspiracy theories has circled around Denver International Airport since before it even opened in 1995. Hatched in the pre-Internet age of ham radio and self-published pamphlets, nurtured by the first wave of crackpot bloggers and post-9/11 forum-board prophets, DIA conspiracy theories have continued to grow and thrive in the Facebook era.

After all, DIA is the stuff that memes are made of. A hive of online sources point to secret underground tunnels, swastika-shaped runways, occult-inspired sculpture, Illuminati-engineered concourses, end-of-times artwork and ancient alien symbology hidden in plain sight! When Westword first probed the phenomenon nearly ten years ago in "DIA Conspiracy Theories Take Off," scary speculations about DIA were still largely relegated to conspiracy connoisseurs on the far fringes of public consciousness.

Since then the theories have been exposed to the mainstream mind via dozens of media outlets ranging from local TV news to CNN, the Huffington Post and Smithsonian magazine, all encouraging their audiences to gawk at the freak show. The dark digital postulations have persisted for so long, with such viral tenacity, that they’ve nested permanently within the airport’s narrative and brand.

After being tortured for years by the ceaseless, incredulous questioning, airport officials have assumed a new stance on the subject. What started as denial and moved onto anger, then despair, has finally landed on acceptance.
"For many years the airport tried to fight against the conspiracies, and we constantly had to explain and disprove them,” says Stacy Stegman, senior vice-president of communications for DIA. “Over time we've kind of learned to love that there's a certain amount of strangeness associated with the airport, and it's kind of fun."

Heather Kaufman, the airport's director of Arts & Public Events, found that the conspiracies were just part of the tapestry of the art program when she started the job three years ago. “There are lots of us who work here in different offices, and we were like, why are we fighting this?" she recalls. "This is something that's interesting about the airport, so let's embrace it."

Embracing it is an understatement: DIA has chosen to embark on an entire month of conspiracy-related events. This month, the airport will host a “conspiracy costume party” (for those who want to dress up as their favorite DIA “conspiracy character”), a movie screening of UFO-classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (that has its own random DIA connection), and a contest that will take the winner and a guest on a “behind-the-scenes underground tunnel tour.”

There’s even an educational angle: The airport will be offering guided “conspiracy art tours” of the public art pieces that have been most frequently connected with conspiracies. The tours will lead to a new exhibit just installed October 1 on the fifth floor of the main terminal by the north security checkpoint, Conspiracy Theories Uncovered, that's filled with photos, video and other artifacts related to DIA conspiracy theories (including a 2007 issue of Westword, above).
The airport's public art originally filled the melting pot of the paranoids who see so many secrets in plain sight, particularly the murals "Children of the World Dream of Peace" and ”In Peace and Harmony With Nature," by Colorado artist Leo Tanguma. "Mustang,” the 32-foot-tall, blue demon-horse statue that killed its creator, artist Luis Jiménez, and Terry Allen’s gargoyle-in-a-suitcase statue, “Notre Denver,” are also mainstays of the conspiracy-art showcase.

“We're really excited to be able to educate people about the art instead of it being so misinterpreted,” says Kaufman. “A lot of what the terminal gallery exhibit is all about is how many of these conspiracy theories there are, and how to get educated about the truth."

When describing the effort, Stegman and Kaufman frequently use words like “hilarious,” “wacky” and “fun” — clues to the underlying strategy to frame the conspiracies more as a silly roadside attraction than a disturbing myth.

Still, these events bring full circle an extraordinary relationship between public art and design, and the fantastical world of conspiracy truth-seekers.

In many ways, the conspiracy theorist and the artist are very similar. Both work in symbolism and metaphor, and seek to convey concepts that are not obvious in common thinking. An artist wants to break through the rational brain to evoke abstract concepts that play on beliefs and perceptions. The conspiracy theorist seeks to assemble myriad disassociated ideas, facts and symbols into wholly new patterns of thought and logic that all lead back to a preconceived belief. Both are trying to get at something that feels deeper and truer to their experience of the world.

"I think most artists embrace the idea that you're going to get diverse interpretations about their art. If you ask ten people, you're going to get ten answers, especially when it comes to abstract art or something similar,” says Kaufman. “I think that the difference in my mind is that with conspiracy theorists, they're more trying to convince someone of what they believe, whereas the artist is putting things out there and saying art is in the eye of the beholder."

Fair enough. But in this time of Trump, when the dizzying style of conspiracy-theorist logic has become infused into political discourse, the most notable thing about the DIA conspiracy theories may be their role as a public expression of the deepest fears and anxieties within the culture at any given point in time. Government secrecy, relentless globalization, creeping environmental catastrophe, elitist political manipulation, shifting cultural norms, perilously fast technological change — which is your thread to pull?Like oral traditions of the digital age being passed from screen to screen, perhaps Denver's greatest collective art masterpiece is the DIA conspiracy collection.

Believe it. Or not.

Keep for the top six conspiracy theories about Denver International Airport, and the art that inspired them.