by Antoinette LaFarge
Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax and Provocation
DoppelHouse Press, 432pp., $49.95
It matters what stories we tell to tell other
stories with.… It matters what stories
make worlds, what worlds make stories.
—Donna Haraway, “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative
Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”
It sometimes seems that we live in an era of ubiquitous fakery. Indeed, there is now an entire vocabulary to encompass shades of deception that leave the propaganda and disinformation of past generations in the dust. Now we live with fake memoirs and deepfake videos, catfishing and sockpuppetry on social networks, astroturfing (fake grassroots efforts), and an entire rainbow of washings: whitewashing, greenwashing, purple, red, pink. In the realm of film and video alone we find docufiction, docudrama, pseudo-documentary, fake-fiction, mockumentary, and reality-TV parsing out differences in the compounding of truth and fiction that sometimes seem almost too subtle to grasp. Accompanying this shift from the early information age to our current “infocalypse” era of rampant misinformation, a form of art has emerged that likewise traffics in deception, placing itself right at this potent junction where fiction and fact make contact. But instead of following the current pressure to choose sides—especially, to choose the moral high ground of fact and truth as a bulwark against a tide of “lying liars”—there is a group of artists who take a different path, one that confounds fact and fiction in complicated ways. One that indeed celebrates a state in which the two cannot be simply or securely separated into opposing camps.
A key characteristic of this kind of artwork is that it centers on a specific kind of deceit: it places a highly developed fiction at its center that is passed off as factual. This fiction is secured as fact through the use of what appear to be evidentiary objects: documentary photographs and videos, historical artifacts and relics—all of which were actually made by the artists themselves. The final artwork consists in this constellation of manufactured evidence attesting to the central narrative, displayed in ways designed to further amplify the historicity or facticity of the whole. In that final display stage, these artists typically situate themselves publicly not as creators but as curators whose mission is to organize and explain the collection to their audience.
An example: In 2008, the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted a purportedly historical exhibition entitled He Named Her Amber. It centered on a set of mysterious art objects said to have been made by Mary O’Shea, an Irish servant in the late nineteenth century. Visitors were offered a tour of the historic building where the servant had worked and where excavations related to her life were in progress. At the very end of the tour, visitors were informed that what they had seen was not a real excavation pertaining to actual history, as it appeared, but entirely the invention of a contemporary German-Canadian artist, Iris Häussler.
In devising this elaborate installation, Häussler intended to provide an experience of art that was heightened by all the elements that made it seem real, and that was made more immediate by being unmoored from any conventional framing as art. By choosing this historical structure, which conceals art behind fiction, and fiction behind the appearance of fact, Häussler made vivid the links between women’s lower social and economic status in the nineteenth century, their exclusion from the public domain, and their inability to have their productions recognized as art. The fact that her version of history is a creative construction in turn serves to undermine the distancing effect of history as something that conveniently happens to other people in a time long gone and helps us to notice how such exclusions continue operate in our own time.
In 2002, I started using the term “fictive art” to refer to this kind of work. In that year, I was the co-organizer, with the late writer and artist Lise Patt, of a College Art Association panel on the topic, and together we settled on the term after chewing over dozens of possibilities. Other terms that have been used for this kind of work include “superfiction” (preferred by the Scottish-Australian artist Peter Hill, whose 2002 doctoral thesis was the first major work to define this field) and “parafiction” (preferred by theorist Carrie Lambert-Beatty). I find I resist both terms for their logocentrism: in their very structure, both of these terms privilege the fictional-textual element and elide the absolutely critical role played by visual objects and images, especially with respect to the ways that objects help to assert the fiction within everyday reality. I am more sympathetic to the term “parafact,” which has been defined as a fiction “too strange not to be ‘real’.” Fictive art often achieves its successes by appearing to audiences in a very similar light: as being too plausible, too likely, too obvious not to be real.
A working definition of fictive art might be expansive fictions that are actualized and temporarily secured as factual through the production of evidentiary objects, events, and entities. The temporary nature of the illusion is another key element of fictive art: these works either lightly conceal their made-upness, include elements that designedly undermine the fiction, or—as in the case of He Named Her Amber—cleanly out themselves to their audience at some stage. The outing phase is where the conversation about the artwork really begins, because audience (and critic) responses vary all the way from disgust and anger at being tricked to deepened pleasure at understanding the final layer in a complex production. It is no accident that a number of significant artists working in this realm are people who trouble our ideas about gender and identity, who are adept at code-switching and use the form to expand on the larger social context of art: what it means to have to pass as someone (or something) else, to be invisible or mis-seen, to perform as a trickster due to low status, to be unable to contribute to the narrative around what counts as art. In other cases, fictive art arises out of resistance to cultural change and comes from those who benefit from the status quo. In both cases, the unease of epistemological uncertainty is a primary component of the experience of fictive art.
In the sense that it refuses the well-understood genres of documentary project on the one hand and what-you-see-is-what-you-get visual art on the other—choosing instead a terrain in which dissimulation is a primary feature, with all its attendant consequences of mistrust, outrage, and rejection—fictive art has been a radical form. It has only emerged as a genre in its own right in the past several decades, in response to the rise of a deepened discourse about social identity and access to power, together with the enormous spread of ‘fake news’, media jamming, and outright lies, all of which undermine of our ability to guarantee facts to each other. Although origin stories are always dubious, there are several artists whose work in the 1960s and 1970s did a great deal to set the stage for the contemporary practice of fictive art. The best-known (though not the earliest) is Marcel Broodthaers, whose Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles project from 1968 is one of the first modern artworks that bears all the major hallmarks of the genre. A few years earlier, Norman Daly had begun working on his fictive archaeological project The Civilization of Llhuros, while Alan Abel was already well established in his career as a professional hoaxer. In the 1970s, we find Peter Hill experimenting with his first invented artists and Lynn Hershman Leeson living as her alter ego ‘Roberta Breitmore’. Until the end of the 1980s, however, there are only these and a few other scattered examples of the form, but beginning in the 1990s, there is a major expansion of fictive art projects of all kinds, and there has been no visible slowdown since then. Indeed, there are signs that this may now be a mature genre, as very famous artists and venues are routinely engaging with fictive art. In 2017, for example, the British artist Damien Hirst mounted a fictive marine archeology project in Venice, The Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, and in that same year Hauser & Wirth Gallery mounted a quite different fictive archeology project at Frieze London, The Bronze Age c. 3500 B.C.–A.D. 2017. Both Hirst and Hauser & Wirth made millions off their respective exhibitions, and with the advent of this kind of large-scale spectacle it could be argued that fictive art has passed out of the initial phase in which the form was still in the process of being defined.
In its masquerading of fiction as fact, fictive art has a great deal in common with hoaxes, forgeries, and impostures. One can place fictive art at the center of a Venn diagram where forgery (which pertains to deception in artmaking), hoaxes (deceptive events of all sorts), and impersonation (deceptive performances of personal identity) all overlap. However, this book argues that fictive art cannot be reductively written off as any of these. Instead, fictive art uses the methods of art to offer a path of reflection on the very issues that it embodies in its own structure. As art historian Griselda Pollock writes about Canadian artist Vera Frenkel’s fictive art project, it is important to take account of the difference between fantasies that have been erected as ‘the truth’ specifically to block out unwanted narratives and those accounts that disturb the very idea that there can be a single truth. It is no accident that so many fictive art projects have spectral female protagonists struggling to insert themselves into history, or offer speculative historical narratives, or attack the accepted institutions of the contemporary art world: art theorist Douglas Crimp’s idea of a mausoleal museum has been reenvisioned as a theater of the absurd. To put it another way, by placing fact and fiction, actuality and fantasy under extraordinary tension for its audience, fictive art creates a temporary heterotopia in the sense intended by Michel Foucault: a real place that brings together other kinds of spaces that are “in themselves incompatible.”
Some artists of fictive work have become quite well known, such as American artist David Wilson—mastermind of the Museum of Jurassic Technology—and a few artists well known for other kinds of work have made forays into the form, such as Hirst. However, many of the most remarkable artists devoted to fictive art remain relatively unknown, in part because their work falls outside the main trends of contemporary art, in part because they are challenging the orthodoxies of public presentation by their reliance on deception, and in part because they work in so many different media that they have not heretofore been understood as a coherent group. My recently published book Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax and Provocation provides a comprehensive survey of the form, its key practitioners, its antecedents (about which another entire book could be written), and the cultural moment that produced it, in order to understand its potency and challenges in today’s information landscape.
The writer Umberto Eco has spoken of his respect for “the force of falsity” which makes “inaccurate ideas influential, transforms imperfect understandings into creative misprisions, and enables fake texts to generate genuine experiences.” All of this is possible only in the synapse where energy crackles back and forth between credulity and skepticism, and it demands from the viewer a constant questioning of what is needed for uncertainty to convert to belief. In an age of ‘truthiness’, asks the scholar Carrie Lambert-Beatty, what constitutes “due epistemological diligence?” When do we (think we) know we have enough evidence that it is reasonable to believe something? Is it when we walk into the nineteenth-century house where Iris Häussler set up He Named Her Amber, understanding from the initial framing that we are entering an archeological excavation? Is it part-way through, when the accumulation of evidentiary objects creates a compelling narrative that it would seem silly to disbelieve? Fictive art prods the viewer away from the postmodernist’s and relativist’s different positions of undecidability, practically insisting that the audience figure out how to come down—on the side of truth, on the side of fiction, or on the side of some tormenting mix of the two. It does this in part by proposing itself as a mystery, tickling our urge to find solutions.
Fictive art is, above all, a highly stage-managed form, a choreographed deception. Rather than being an irresponsible form, fictive art takes itself to be answerable for both its methods and its intentions. To quote Nick Bantock writing about his Museum at Purgatory, with fictive art we have something “whose history is authentic but whose actuality fails to reside in the regular precepts of normality.”
In thinking about fictive art, it may be helpful to bear in mind the experiential aspect of what counts as real. The real can either be those things that are so banal and ordinary that we barely notice them anymore, or those things that are so intensely experienced that we cannot shake them (Brecht’s alienation effect). Fictive art subjects us to both kinds of experience, with the first—‘oh, this is just history’—in service of the second—‘is this a trick?’ Fictive art’s power is to make us feel threatened, or amused, or delighted, to push us from expecting the expected to confronting the mysterious.
Fictive art also offers one possible response to the widespread expectation that meaningful contemporary art must be overtly politically or socially conscious—even as it is positioned in ways that tend to pull whatever teeth it has. Art loses some of its edge when it is presented as a valuable ‘collectible’, or made answerable to corporate funders, or tagged as edutainment. Fictive art opens an alternate way, one that is political without necessarily foregrounding politics, challenging to our beliefs about authenticity, truth, and value; and yet difficult to render broadly acceptable because of its deceptions.
The creations of these artists come late to the table, historically speaking, compared to the long parallel tradition that exists in literature and history, a tradition of ‘actualizing’ narratives through the production of various kinds of evidentiary documents. This lineage famously embraces James Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ poems and manuscripts, William-Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare plays and documents, and Thomas Chatterton’s production of the oeuvre of a fifteenth-century monk named Rowley.
There are several reasons for this lack of a parallel lineage of nonexistent artists, about which more can be said than there is space or time to develop here. One is that western art has no strong tradition of pseudonymity after the Renaissance; artists are expected to produce under their own names and styles and would have been downgraded for doing otherwise until quite recently. Another has to do with the fact that up until Marcel Duchamp disconnected the hand of the artist from the activity of making art early in the twentieth century, the connection between the two remained strong because highly valued. Practically speaking, it becomes difficult to pursue working under a fictive identity when the culture so often expects artists to be able to demonstrate their mastery in person. Up until the twentieth century, almost the only people who can really be said to have worked extensively in terrain related to fictive art were forgers. By this I mean that Han Van Meegeren’s ‘Vermeers’, for example, resemble a pseudonymic fictive art project by reason of the fact that the work produced as ‘by’ Vermeer is entirely different from the work produced under Van Meegeren’s own name.
It is worth asking whether writing about these projects does not betray its subject matter by discussing them as fictive art. Fictive art thrives to a certain degree on concealment, but if I understand something as fictive art, other people (including in some cases their authors) might disagree. In the end, I feel it’s worth pursuing the conversation that fictive art projects structurally and intentionally generate around vital questions of fact, fiction, imagination, authority, credibility, and uncertainty.
Any form of research requires great care in disentangling discordant sources, tracking down missing information, and making educated guesses where required. Writing about fictive art has been different in this respect only in the special difficulties presented by a practice that is thoroughly engaged with deception and misdirection. Figuring out the histories of various projects and parsing the many variations on each story as presented at different stages of the game has been a complicated and endlessly fascinating undertaking. Many projects are in some sense unfinishable, and the energy of their confusions will linger into the future.
Featured Image: Horned-Hare-Animalia_Qvadrvpedia_et_Reptilia_(Terra)_Plate_XLVII:
Animalia Qvadrupedia et Reptilia (Terra) by Joris Hoefnagel, c. 1575/1580, a watercolor with a mythical horned hare at center. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.
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Excerpt courtesy of the author and DoppelHouse Press.
Antoinette LaFarge is an internationally recognized new media artist with a special interest in speculative fiction, feminist techne, and alternative histories. Her artwork has taken form as new media performance, computer-programmed installations, public exhibitions and interventions, digital prints, and artist’s books. LaFarge was the founder and longtime artistic director of the Plaintext Players, a pioneering Internet performance troupe founded in 1993 that appeared at numerous international venues, including the 1997 Venice Biennale, documenta X, and UpStage festivals. She has authored several books, including Louise Brigham and the Early History of Sustainable Furniture Design (Palgrave Macmillan 2019) and Monkey Encyclopedia W (ICI Press 2018). Her writing and artwork have appeared in Art Journal, Wired, Leonardo, Ada, Gnosis, the Southern Quarterly, the MOSF Journal of Science Fiction, and elsewhere, as well as in anthologies from MIT Press, Oxford University Press, and other international presses. She is a longtime contributor to Wikipedia, where she focuses on filling gaps in coverage of women and people of color.
LaFarge holds an M.F.A. in Computer Art from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and she is currently Professor of Digital Media in the Art Department at UC Irvine, where she co-curated two early exhibitions on computer games and art: “ALT+CTRL: A Festival of Independent and Alternative Games” (2003) and “SHIFT-CTRL: Computers, Games, and Art” (2000), both at UC Irvine’s Beall Center for Art and Technology.
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