If you are at all familiar with modern American conspiracy theories, you will know something about the Denver International Airport (DIA). The main terminal, designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects and completed in 1995, is striking, cutting a serrated line in the sky, a visual echo of the surrounding mountains on the horizon.
Somehow, the conspiratorial world has convinced itself that, to use Richard Dreyfus’s phrase as he sculpts his mashed potatoes into a replica of the Devil’s Tower, the Denver International Airport “means something.” What exactly it means is unclear, but conspiracy theorists know its meaning is sinister. Numerous hypotheses about the facility’s real purpose have been proposed, most of them rooted in the assertion that the truth is to be found underground in the bowels of the airport. This element of the conspiracy seems to stem from a misinterpretation of events surrounding DIA’s construction. First is the extensive excavation, construction, and inexplicable (to conspiracy theorists) reburial of tunnels on the site, which now house the airport’s rail system. Second, cost overruns on the order of $2 billion raised eyebrows and left conspiracy theorists wondering where all that extra money was going.
The explanations that conspiracy theorists have offered range from the absurd to the even more absurd: DIA is the home of the global shadow government of Illuminati/Masons/New World Order; DIA is the site of a future FEMA concentration camp; it sits atop an underground city that is in turn connected to a network of other underground cities populated by aliens. One idea that seems be on the ascendance is an assertion made by governor-wrestler Jesse Ventura that DIA will be a refuge for global elites during a world-wide catastrophe, not unlike the “arks” seen in the almost unwatchable movie 2012.
According to conspiracy theorists, the key to discerning the conspiracy and understanding the real purpose of the airport is the artwork found throughout the building.1 Two of the richest sources of clues are a pair of murals by Leo Tanguma, “The Children of World Dream of Peace” and “In Peace and Harmony with Nature,” both of which are found near the baggage claim area. These two pieces are diptychs, each consisting of a small panel and a much longer panel. While each smaller panel portrays a truly dystopian world of destruction and decay, the much larger panels display celebratory and vibrant symbolism suggestive of a utopian vision of the future.
On a recent long layover at DIA, I made a point of studying the Tanguma murals. I first came upon “The Children of the World Dream of Peace” and found it utterly enormous.
I stood back to see how people reacted to the mural. Most did not look up, but about one in 200 travelers would pause, shake his head, and move on. I approached one, a slim African American man who looked like he was in his late twenties. He agreed to an interview on the condition that I did not record his voice or give his real name. I will call him Jim.
“This is like a concentration camp,” he said, pointing to the smaller of the two panels in the diptych. And it’s true: the smaller panel looks a little like a poster for a Holocaust movie. A ghastly military figure in a gas mask dominates the scene, striking down a dove of peace with a vicious-looking scimitar. Behind him, a line of dispossessed people shuffles off endlessly into the distance. Jim pointed to the children lying on the ground near the feet of the faceless soldier. “I mean, who puts dead children in a painting? That’s sick.”
“I don’t think that they are dead, actually,” I said. “I think they are asleep.” I pointed out a little note painted into one corner of the mural, near the sleeping children. The note reads:
I was once a little child who longed for other worlds. But I am no more a child for I have known fear. I have learned to hate…. How tragic, then, is youth which lives with enemies, with gallows ropes. Yet, I still believe I only sleep today, that I’ll wake up, a child again, and start to laugh and play.
The quote is attributed to a fourteen-year old who died in December of 1943 at Auschwitz. “Look,” I began. “You see these sleeping kids? They are literally dreaming of a peaceful world.” All of the important themes of the piece, the contrast of war and peace and the dream motif, are introduced in the quote, serving as a key for interpreting the mural. “It’s all about yearning for peace,” I said.
Jim was doubtful. We drifted over to the other panel, and he pointed to all the children and noted that many carry weapons. “That makes them soldiers, right?”
“But they are taking the swords and beating them into ploughshares. That’s a biblical reference. It’s not subtle!” I laughed.
Jim shook his head. “That’s what they want you to think.” He pointed to the smiling, happy children. “See that? That’s the antichrist. The antichrist is going to promise us a world of peace, but he is going to give us that,” he said, gesturing toward the gray panel.
“How do you know this?” I asked, and he gave me some quotes from Revelation. But he finished with a curious statement: “Also, nobody who works here, if you ask them, will talk about the conspiracy.”
Finally, something that we can put to the test, I thought. “Do you want to go ask someone?”
He stepped back and crossed his arms, as if it had never occurred to him that someone might actually go ask. In a moment he shook his head. “No. No.” His unease was clear, and I told him I wouldn’t delay him any longer. I went to talk to the people at the information booth.
When I reached the booth, I asked the woman behind the desk if she could tell me about the conspiracy theories, and I’ll be damned if she wouldn’t talk to me about it! Was Jim right?
Not exactly. They gave me the contact information for the media office. It was clear by the way she rolled her eyes when I mentioned the conspiracy theories that I was not the first person to ask about them.
I headed over to see the other mural, “In Peace and Harmony with Nature.”
There I met traveller Matt Brown, a new resident of Denver who was encountering the murals of DIA for the first time. I asked him why he was interested in the murals.
“I was just interested because my dad just sent me an e-mail about some of these different murals, and I said that I didn’t even notice. So on my way back I’m going check [them] out and see what the deal is.”
“So, what’s your first impression?” I asked.
“I don’t see anything wrong with this one. I mean, peace and harmony with nature. There [are a] whole bunch of different nationalities and creatures. I don’t know what that is in the middle,” he said, pointing to a psychedelic-looking plant that dominates the middle of the mural. ”But it looks like that they are all having a good time.
“This [panel] over here,” he went on, “[is] a little different. There are flames up here, there’s a dead cheetah, and then a bunch of dead people. And so I don’t really know what to make this one is trying to say, to tell you the truth, but it’s pretty harsh!” he said, laughing.
“Is there some sort of Egyptian god of death somewhere also?” Matt asked me.
“That’s what I was told.”
I shrugged. “I’ve been told all sorts of things.” It turns out that the figure of Anubis was actually not part of the art collection at DIA. The figure was only a temporary exterior marketing display promoting “The Treasures of the Pharaohs” exhibit, which was at the Denver Art Museum from July 2010 to January 2011. It was not evidence that ancient mystery cults associated with the Masons were unabashedly announcing their resurgence.
Matt asked about the other mural’s location, and I showed him where it was at the other end of the terminal. When we reached it, I introduced myself to a young couple, Lauren and Tom. I asked Lauren what she thought.
“I’ve heard about these [murals],” she said, “but … they have never caught my eye ’cause I was always on a mission to get to a plane. But today because we were here and just casually doing a pick-up without any time constraint, [so] I wanted to take notice. They’re very strange; they are kind of confusing. They’re…odd. Mass destruction and children and weapons…It makes no sense to me.”
“This statue guy over here,” Tom jumped in, “I mean, over here he’s in charge, and over here he’s dead.”
“I’ve seen little excerpts online about this thing,” Lauren said, “and it’s very strange and I’ve just never really been able to understand it. So this is really the first time I’ve looked at it in any kind of detail.”
“What do you think of the conspiracy theories that surround these?” I asked Lauren.
“I’ve heard a lot of different conspiracies, you know, preparing for mass destruction, that kind of thing, going underground. I’ve heard about those, especially about this airport.”
“So, what do you think about those?”
She paused. “Sure, why not? We’ve got NORAD not far from here. It makes sense that…”
Tom chimed in. “We’re at a high elevation here. So there is more room to dig, if you want. What better place to come to hide someone?”
“Wouldn’t NORAD’s presence make the area a potential target or at least a little more dangerous?” I asked.
“If you go down far enough, it doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Plus this is an airport, so if you have to fly Air Force One here for protection….”
“Well,” Lauren cut in, “I’m sure that there are plenty of locations which have underground cities and things in them.”
“Do you think of it as being a refuge for the President?” I asked.
Tom: “It could be. I mean, why not?”
Lauren: “I know they shut NORAD down a few years ago from having visitors, so….There’s probably places all over the world that have underground cities.
Tom: “If you can afford it, you can come up here and live. If you can’t, you’re screwed.”
I asked them why the conspirators had put so many hints around the airport if they wanted the secret city to remain secret.
“You just stand around here and look, and people don’t even stop and notice this,” Tom replied. “It’s blatant. It’s in your face. You walk right by it.”
Lauren nodded in grim agreement. “It’s denial, I guess.”
My layover in Denver was not long enough for me to hunt down all of the art associated with the conspiracy theories, so when I returned to Atlanta I contacted Matt Chasansky, the Art Program Manager at the Denver International Airport. I interviewed Matt and Jenny Schiavone, a representative from the DIA media office, in a conference call.
In recent years, I have seen lots of large art installations in airports like San Francisco’s and Atlanta’s. Is it a trend, and if so how does DIA fit into that trend?
Matt: Well, the way we fit into that trend is that we started the trend. When they began planning for the airport in the early 1990s, they very quickly gravitated to artists in the process in a very profound way, I think. There had been public art integrated into buildings before, but the Denver Airport was the first one to do it on such a massive scale. I think we had twelve artists in the room with the design team at the very early stages of the design of the airport, and the idea was to have these projects that are equally a part of the architecture and the experience made there. And that was in the early ’90s. It was one of the last fully built out airports before 9/11, and since then there’s been [an] interesting discussion about civic spaces and what that means, and art … has been a big part of that [discussion]. But a lot of the airports, including Denver, are city buildings, municipal buildings, so in Denver that triggers a percent for art work. On the one hand, like I said, there is a push towards art in civic spaces, and on the other hand it’s a mandatory thing to put art in airports because of how we have designed our public art program.2
How were artists or works selected for the airport?
Matt: It’s never one person selecting artwork. We form selection panels in order to have community representation and transparency and democracy in deciding how these things go. It’s really a community-wide effort and never an individual deciding what art should be, how public money should be spent on art. So, when the airport was built, a series of these community panels were assembled project by project in order to decide who are the best to work with and then once identified the airport contracted with the individual artists and began the design process.3
Are those records public?
Matt: Yeah…. All of the public records are open to scrutiny.
Jenny: I don’t know where those public records live, but since we are a government agency we are part of the [Colorado] Open Records [Act]. So it’s certainly something we could help you find.4
Why has Leo Tanguma’s work attracted the attention of so many conspiracy theorists?
Matt: They are striking, and Leo Tanguma is known for social and political subject matter [which he portrays] in a very up-front manner. Not the least of which [are] his choices of color and his format and the way he brings the style, the approach of the WPA murals, and the Mexican visual realists to contemporary narrative. So all that comes together. As far as not being subtle in any way, I think that’s quite intentional just because what Leo chose to do, what he proposed to be in … his two pieces. In one mural the subject matter was overcoming war, violence, and aggression. In the other [it was] was overcoming the challenges of the environment. In both cases, he felt that you can’t pull your punches on subjects like that. You don’t talk about war with images that are anything less than powerful and emotional and striking. In order for him to complete his narrative, what he gave us was a mural, in the case of “The Children of the World Dream of Peace,” a smaller panel on one side that is that metaphor for war and is very direct because its subject matter is dealt with in a very passionate way and the solution equally so. [In] the larger panel we see the children of the world gathering … the swords of war and destroy[ing] them in the symbolic end of violence, [which comes from] a biblical verse, beating the swords into plowshares…. On the one hand I get it; when people say that they are very unsubtle works to have in an airport, that’s very true. The reason is not because of the airport or the way they were selected. The reason is because you’re dealing with serious subject matter here. You can’t do anything short of being very serious about his approach.
What conspiracy theories have you heard about the airport?
Matt: I think it’s more “what conspiracy theories haven’t we heard about the airport?” Basically, you name it. You name a conspiracy theory and somehow we seem to be connected to it.
It’s one of the exciting parts about the story, the culture, that has built up around these; … we can fit into pretty much any story you want to tell because the assumptions and the misinterpretations have gotten wilder and wilder…. It’s a very plastic narrative that’s been created. But probably the most common is that there’s an underground city and that it is a part of a network of underground cities that the government or some sort of shadow international government or aliens are building, depending on your perspective…or Masons…. DIA just seemed to fit that story.
I met a passenger who said that if you ask an employee about the conspiracy theory, they won’t tell you anything. I asked, and she didn’t.
Matt [laughing]: I know there’s no airport policy about not talking about the conspiracy theory. I think that some people are so flabbergasted by the attention that people are paying to that that they don’t know what to say and choose not to say anything.
What are the positive and negative aspects of having conspiracy theories associated with your collection?
Matt: The positive is that everyone talks about it. It’s a culture of itself now, and there’s always more discussion, people all around the world paying attention to this art collection. And once you get past the irreconcilable conversation of “Is there or is there not going to be an end of the world in 2012 and will DIA be the capital of the new world order” … you can actually talk about what art means and how the artist conveys the information and how artists when they create and put their whole abilities into telling a story, they hand it over to the people looking at the art. And they really do sacrifice a lot of their own personal endeavor to what people bring to these sculptures, to these pieces of artwork. So that super valuable conversation about what public art is and how we should properly spend this money and how things are selected is really good to have. And that’s the big positive.
I think the negative is [the difficulty of knowing] how to educate people because the power of a single person with a blog taking a picture of a corner of one of our murals and interpreting that—that has so much more resonance than anything official that we could do, that telling the other side of the story is a big challenge.
How have you tried to tell that story?
Jenny: …We have tried to use social media to our benefit in that area. We have a very popular Facebook page and we do get a lot of commenters who are conspiracy theorists and people who are clearly only following us because … they want to see what the Illuminati is up to, what the aliens are up to underneath the airport, that sort of thing. It’s been fun for us to open up that dialogue between the public and the airport, where we’ll go and post a photo and a short story about a new art work, and it’s fun to see the comments roll in. You may see a few comments that are accusing us of starting another conspiracy or playing into a conspiracy theory, but then immediately following that you’ll see a conversation starting with other fans who are trying to explain what the artwork is. That really goes even beyond our art program.
Would you host a piece of artwork that addressed the conspiracy theory?
Matt: We don’t really dictate what artists should do. The artists come to our selection panels proposals based on the nature of the site…. We want things to be very site specific and serious….The approach on how to spend the public money on the art is … a serious undertaking.
Who runs the airport operation on a daily basis? Have you been to the areas singled out by conspiracy theorists?
Jenny: We definitely have, and I would say Matt has more so than me. [W]e’re a city agency, we’re part of the city and county of Denver. And the employees who run the airport are all City and County of Denver employees. We have about 1,100 employees here who make up our operations team, our maintenance team. Matt and I, our marketing, PR, and finance divisions, those are all City employees. [There are] another 30,000+ people who work out here for the airlines, concessionaires, and other vendors who do business with the airport. But in terms of who runs the airport, it’s essentially the City and County of Denver Department of Aviation. I have been in many if not all of the places that the conspiracy theorists are fond of “calling out,” and I’ve never seen anything that was even remotely suspicious looking. There have been [people] who have asked me that [question], and I have given them that same answer. [T]hey of course think that I am brainwashed and I’m supposed to say that, but I can 100 percent honestly say that.
Matt: It’s interesting, I can’t give a tour in the airport without at least one person attaching themselves to the tour and starting to ask questions about that. [R]eally it’s fascinating that there’s nothing that you can say. There’s not [any] evidence you can provide, there are no assurances you can give that the conspiracy theory is wrong, because … obviously it’s going to be a cover up or brainwashing or chips installed in brains.
Where do you folks plan to be in December, oh, around the 21st?
Matt: I’m going to have a stock of food in my office, but not for any particular reason.
Jenny: I think I will be on Christmas vacation, but who knows?
2. According to the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, since 1988, Denver’s Public Art Program directs that “1% of any capital improvement project over $1 million undertaken by the City be set aside for the inclusion of art in the design and construction of these projects”. ↩
3. The complete process of selecting artwork for capital improvement projects is outlined in exquisite detail in a brochure produced by the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, which can be downloaded in PDF format. For a full account of the process by which Tanguma’s murals and all the other works in the airport were selected, see pages 10–16. ↩