For Christopher Garcia-Hendrix, who has watched countless travelers move through Denver International Airport over the last five years, the power of conspiracy theories is real.
“People come up and ask, ‘Are there really underground tunnels? Is there really a hidden bunker?’ ” said the Concourse A retail vendor, who asked that his employer not be named because he was not authorized to speak on the company’s behalf. “You have to say no… even though there really is.”
Garcia-Hendrix quickly smiled and added that he was kidding. But you can’t blame people for believing the hype, especially since the airport itself readily encourages it.
Since 1995, eye-catching public art and a mix of real and imagined controversies have conspired to earn Denver International Airport a shadowy world-renown. Last year, the airport that welcomed more than 69 million visitors also tracked 750 worldwide media mentions about its conspiracy theories, which range from the benign (it harbors proof of aliens) to the troublesome (it has ties to Nazis, as evidenced by a “swastika-shaped runway design”).
In 2019, DIA’s flood of conspiracy theory stories reached a high-water mark with impressions on nearly 6 million people and an estimated $1.5 million in free publicity, said Alex Renteria, public information officer at DIA.
Using PR company’s Cision’s tracking software, DIA also found that its “talking gargoyle” promotion — consisting of an animatronic sculpture in the main terminal — by itself generated 720 news stories with an audience reach of 67.3 million, with publicity valued at $1.9 million.
“Welcome to Illuminati headquarters,” the gargoyle said in one of its greetings. “I mean… Denver International Airport.”
Embracing the mythology “allowed us to not only give information about our conspiracy theories to the public, it let us have a conversation with them, literally,” Renteria said.
However, it’s only in recent years that airport officials have embraced the conspiracies as strategic marketing tools. Even before the airport opened 25 years ago, cost overruns and delays fueled speculation about the true nature of the airport’s troubles — and its isolated location east of downtown. When it did finally open on Feb. 28, 1995, it was already 16 months overdue and $2 billion over its original $2.9 billion budget.
Beliefs about a sinister New World Order plot, lizard people living in the tunnels and other outlandish theories circulated in conspiracy theory communities and on ham radio until Jesse Ventura helped popularize them with a 2012 episode of his TV show “Conspiracy Theory.” Since then, hundreds of worldwide media outlets from ABC News to the Science Channel continue to report them on an annual basis, while internet communities have sprung up to nourish them with purported evidence.
“We have a CEO (Kim Day) who really embraces the conspiracy ideas,” former spokesman Heath Montgomery told The Denver Post in 2016. “We decided a few years ago that rather than fight all of this and try and convince everybody there’s nothing really going on, let’s have some fun with it.”
The airport’s recent marketing imagery features tunnels, the Eye of Providence (a.k.a. “the pyramid eye”) and arguably the most recognizable star of DIA’s public art collection — “Blucifer,” the 32-foot-tall, red-eyed horse sculpture (actually called “Blue Mustang”) that fell on and killed its creator, Luis Jiménez, before he could see it installed.
The text that accompanies the image of the horse shooting red lasers out of its eyes: “Are we creating the world’s greatest airport? Or preparing for the end of the world? Learn the truth at DENFiles.com.”
As with any conspiracy theory, the bizarre and exciting ideas that play into people’s existing beliefs tend to obscure the real ones that are less attention-grabbing but more financially significant. DENFiles.com is a landing page for DIA’s Great Hall renovation, with an updated timeline for the project and tips for navigating omnipresent construction obstacles.
Nowhere does the page mention the less flattering news that in August, in-fighting over huge cost overruns and delay projections with Great Hall Partners caused DIA and city officials to terminate their $1.8 billion, 34-year public-private partnership. While the airport frequently touts its rapidly growing number of visitors — officials plan to spend $1.5 billion to add 39 gates on the three concourses — it has also weathered criticism for not treating portions of its world-renowned public art collection fairly.
As the birthplace of the city’s public art collection (the airport counts 34 pieces that it spent nearly $14 million to acquire), there are sculptures, paintings, ceramic tiles and “kinetic” art that moves with its environment. There are also installations that have led to bitter arguments between the airport and Denver’s Commission on Cultural Affairs, as in 2017 with artist Michael Singer’s “Interior Garden.”
DIA officials complained that the 12,000-square-foot installation built to look like ancient ruins was unexpectedly costly and difficult to maintain (including $15,000 spent annually to hand-water the sculpture’s living plants, and $800,000 in maintenance since installation).
Artist Singer and members of the commission countered that they weren’t notified of the problems until it was too late.
“We heard loud and clear that we should do whatever it takes to maintain our public art,” DIA’s Stacey Stegman said at the time. “There didn’t seem to be the same concern that we have for the amount of money that could look like.”
DIA and Singer eventually settled on the “deaccession request,” as it was called, by agreeing to remove “Interior Garden” and replace it with a new piece by Singer that the airport committed at least $495,000 to fund.
Meanwhile, the airport’s marketing continues to exploit theories about haunted art, New World Order plots and underground tunnels leading to Cheyenne Mountain. It’s a tricky — and unusually canny — balance to strike for an institution that’s deeply serious about real-world fears, such as terrorism and virus pandemics.
“Our goal is not to frighten anyone,” Renteria said. “It’s to embrace the conspiracies that are fun. This is an airport, and at the end of the day we want people to feel safe, not stressed. But while you’re here, we want it to be a place that’s a little unexpected, whether you’re seeing a talking gargoyle or a pop-up event or performance.”
In that way, the country’s fifth-busiest airport fits neatly within Denver’s growing identity as a place for the weird and adventurous. And with an average of 1,700 flights in and out every day, there’s a steady stream of new eyeballs to influence.
“It’s all hype,” said airport vendor Garcia-Hendrix, a Denver native. “The airport definitely uses the theories to their fullest, and to fly into here and say that you’ve seen all these dark, very abstract artworks… it’s an attraction unto itself.”
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