As those of you who have closely followed my multifaceted career (Hi Mom!) are no doubt aware, I have long been interested in art that straddles the line of truthiness — having participated in such antics with The Yes Men, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Joey Skaggs, Jim Shaw, Jeffrey Vallance and others, as well as writing about and/or curating work by these and sundry intermittently unverifiable entities.
So it was a great pleasure to hear about, then delve into Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax, and Provocation, Antoinette LaFarge’s substantial new compendium of anecdotal evidence and theoretical musings concerning this kind of creative action, which she refers to as Fictive Art. Between a recent art residency in Fresno(!) and the launch of a series of live conversations with some of the contemporary artists profiled in Sting (more information on that here), we sat down in the plush foyer of the Museum of Forgery to chew the fat.
The book’s front cover features small cast-plaster objects created ca. 1907 ‘by’ Sophie La Rosière, a French painter invented by artist Iris Häussler.
LESS ART: First off, can you say a little about your background, your art practice, and how your interest in Fictive Art develop? Was there a single work that switched on the bulb?
Antoinette LaFarge: As an artist, I’ve worked in many media, generally choosing them to suit the project I have in mind. But one throughline in all my work has been that I am happiest at the places where words and images come together, whether that is performance art or artist’s books or fictive art. I am also more than a bit of a contrarian, so at some point in my 20s I started thinking seriously about why forgery seemed to be the last taboo in art— more frowned upon at every level of the art world than even the most controversial kinds of art. That led me to start noticing art projects that had an element of deception in them, and I sort of ‘collected’ them over the years in folders of clippings (remember when we all traded actual newspaper and magazine clippings?). So there was no one thing, but rather a slow accumulation of noticings. Then, around 1993, I decided to found my own Museum of Forgery as an artist’s project and fake institution, and the actual experience of working with deception took me yet another step down the road in thinking about how and why this kind of work exists— and in my opinion needs to exist.
Eva & Franco Mattes, Press clippings on Darko Maver, 1998. The Matteses invented Maver as a controversial Serbian artist, killed him off in a flurry of press coverage, and then revealed that he had never actually lived. The project took advantage of the internet as a forum to promulgate fiction as reality.
LESS ART: What is Fictive Art, and what distinguishes it from pranks, forgeries, and interventions?
Antoinette LaFarge: I define fictive art as fictions that their makers attempt to secure as real and true by producing all kinds of visual evidence in support of the project’s factuality. That evidence could be ‘historical’ photographs or memorabilia or actual artworks ‘created’ by an invented artist. Fictive art has obvious affinities with pranks, hoaxes, forgeries, and art interventions, but I find some significant differences. Pranks and hoaxes are usually humorous, short-lived actions designed so that the moment of revelation will embarrass the pranked party— whereas fictive art projects tend to live longer in the shadows and are much more rarely targeted to embarrass someone. There is likewise a much stronger commitment to developing a rich and expansive central fiction and letting it evolve over time. That said, quite a few of the projects in my book have been tagged as pranks or hoaxes in the media— and one of my issues with these two words is that they are a way of dismissing the work without thinking about it carefully.
Fictive art overlaps with forgery in that in both genres, someone’s work is passed off as someone else’s— the actual maker is concealed. But forgery is primarily carried out to make money by deceiving the art market, and that is clearly not the central motive of most fictive art projects I’ve examined. On the contrary, because of the concealment of the artist’s identity (sometimes for quite long periods) and the resulting censure when the ‘hoax’ is revealed, I doubt whether most fictive artists make much money at all on their projects. One major counter-example here might be Damien Hirst’s 2017 fictive art project Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable— I don’t actually know if he made money off this exhibition, but given his track record, it seems likely. But there was also almost no deception in this case– the fiction was tissue thin because the artist’s name was so prominent in the PR.
Fictive art is also related to art interventions in that it does not accept general cultural assumptions about what art should be and how it should operate. But many art interventions either don’t have rich central fictions, or they take place within art world institutions and so are already marked as art or performance. One of the things that makes fictive art interesting to me is that it challenges the viewer to figure out what it is at the most basic categorical level— history, science, archaeology, art history, art— true or false or neither?
Detail of the first of the so-called Cottingley fairy photographs taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, showing her cousin Frances Griffiths with supposedly real fairies.
LESS ART: At what art historical point do you see the category of Fictive Art beginning? When did artists start deliberately working in this medium or mode?
Antoinette LaFarge: In the book, I write about predecessor forms going back several centuries, especially in literature— I’m thinking here of Thomas Chatterton’s invention in the 1760s of a 15th century poet monk named Thomas Rowley, in whose name he produced a large trove of poems, letters, drawings, and other manuscripts. But I think that for all practical purposes, the form starts to emerge with the advent of photography and its power of seeming to be an incontestable witness to the past. So by the early 20th century, we find two teenage English girls faking photographs of fairies and deceiving even thoughtful observers like Arthur Conan Doyle. But as a form in which artists deliberately choose to work, we’re looking at the 1960s— that’s when early practitioners like Norman Daly with his fictive archaeology and Marcel Broodthaers with his fictive museum start to turn up. I attribute this emergence to various factors, including the rise of pseudo-events and artists working with and interrogating mass media— all these are important to fictive art because it is crucial that the (fictional) story at the center of the artwork gets circulated as factual. And then it really accelerates in the 1990s as artists gain access to image-processing software to help with creating fake evidence, and as they get on the internet, with its baked-in ability to support all kinds of facades.
Norman Daly, Home Votive Shrine in Two Parts (wood and metal, 1970) an object from his invented ancient near Eastern civilization of Llhuros. Courtesy of David Daly.
LESS ART: How does Fictive Art intersect with the widespread belief (cf: A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney) that Modern Art is a con-job, put-on, etc?
Antoinette LaFarge: In one way it intersects very nicely with that point of view— because, unlike most modern art, it actually is a con job! And this accounts in part for the reaction of anger that some viewers experience when they learn that a project they had accepted as real history, say, is actually entirely fictional. But it’s interesting that anger doesn’t seem to be the most widespread reaction— many viewers seem to experience something closer to delight or excitement at the moment of revelation. And I think that has to do in part with how much work the best fictive artists put into their projects— it’s impossible not to respect the depth and richness of the fiction and all its created objects and thereby to understand that the artist is a serious person rather than a mere prankster. In part it is because most fictive art projects have a ‘self outing’ aspect— they offer clues to their fictionality that allow viewers to slowly figure out that they are in the presence of fakery rather than be slapped in the face with the fact that they have been deceived. And I think it also helps that there is a big story at the heart of many fictive art projects; people gravitate to stories, and it seems to me that one of the reasons for the belief in modern art as a con job is the often opaque specialist language that is used to explain it, language that makes many people feel shut out and looked down on.
Jake Angeli, the QAnon Shaman
LESS ART: Was Q-Anon the greatest work of Fictive Art ever?
Antoinette LaFarge: That is certainly an arguable position, though I would hesitate on two grounds. In the first place, Q-Anon as a conspiracy theory has evolved and been promulgated mainly through words—on forums, in blogs, by talking heads. This aligns it better with various literature-centric forms like fake memoirs that I did not include in my book, since the emphasis in fictive art is on the creation of visual and tactile evidence. The ‘evidence’ for Q-Anon has largely been specious arguments piled atop untruths, though there is at least one false video associated with Q-Anon. And it has certainly prompted various other actions, including domestic terrorism, that its proponents see as helping to secure the ‘truth’ of Q-Anon. In these ways, Q-Anon has functioned like a multinym— a cover identity that anyone can adopt.
My other hesitation has to do with intention— Q-Anon is one of the cruelest and most unethical movements in my lifetime; its sponsors seem entirely unconcerned with the damage to actual human lives caused by their blatant lies. Can something this brutal qualify as art? Or do we perhaps need a different word for acts of imagination that are designed primarily to harm others?
LESS ART: I’m skeptical of the “must reveal” criterion for Fictive Art. If the artist consciously creates a Fictive work but never cops to it, isn’t it a better fiction? And isn’t the first and most profound effect of the assumption of a false identity the alteration of the artist’s consciousness? And aren’t such artists still operating in the same medium of consent either way?
Antoinette LaFarge: I think that if a fictive project is deliberately made so well that it is never outed, then in a certain sense it never enters our consciousness— it is just another factual kind of thing we think we already know about, as history or science, for example. I feel strongly that unless the project raises doubt in some degree, or outs itself at some point, so that there can be a moment of reflection, it is not actually doing anything very interesting. It becomes a work of supreme craft, one might say, but not fictive art. So the artist is of double mind— they are inside the false identity, as you note, in a way that can be psychologically very profound, but they are also attuned to the audience for whom they are staging the piece. I think it would be the very rare fictive artist who wanted to never engage in some kind of conversation with their audience over this kind of work.
LESS ART: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the multitude of anecdotes as opposed to a handful of airtight case studies. Why did you take this tack and what’s your favorite story?
Antoinette LaFarge: I knew from the outset that I wanted to cast a fairly broad net so that the wide range of methods, genres, and intentions could become clear, and also so that the areas of overlap with activities like forgery, hoaxes, and imposture could be explored in depth. I felt that for a kind of work that is relatively new to many people, it would be a disservice to start with a narrow field of examples, and it was for the same reason that I tried to write towards a general rather than a specialist audience.
I have so many favorite stories in this book! But certainly one that I come back to over and over is the African-American artist Leslie J. Payne and his Airplane Machine Shop Company. His fictional flights in his homemade airplanes really resonate with me for the way he tried to imagine what was for him an impossible future as an aviator into existence and make it real in the here and now.
Leslie J. Payne shown in front of one of his homemade airplanes in which he logged a series of fictional flights. Photo by Bob Jones, Jr., courtesy of the California Museum of Photography.
LESS ART: Let me throw out a few names that I was surprised aren’t covered in your book. Joey Skaggs? Alan Sokal? Desmond Morris/Congo? Clayton Bailey? The Blair Witch Project?
Antoinette LaFarge: The process of deciding who to leave out so that my book wouldn’t become a doorstop was certainly painful at times. Alan Sokal I actually wrote up but ended up leaving out along with an entire draft chapter on primarily literary projects— those that didn’t attempt to produce visual evidence and other realia. The Blair Witch Project I left out along with all the many variants on semi-fictional film and television— mockumentary, docufiction, docudrama, pseudo-documentary, reality tv, and so on. These struck me as deserving a book of their own that could explore the myriad ways that film/tv relates to truth-telling. Joey Skaggs could certainly be in the book, but his work as a prankster has so many similarities to Alan Abel and the Yes Men that I decided to leave him out. And there are also some folks I didn’t find out about until too late, inevitably, which is a sign I think of both how robust the practice is and how difficult it can be to unearth projects that are stealthy by nature.
LESS ART: What is the future of Fictive Art? Has its viability diminished with the advent of the era of deep fake videos and constant digital surveillance? What does it have to offer in terms of political and cognitive change? What will Post-Fictive art look like?
Antoinette LaFarge: We live in an era when people’s credulousness and their inability to parse different kinds and sources of information has become a major cultural and political problem. Because fictive art sets out to make us think hard about what counts as reality, truth, and evidence, I don’t think its viability has diminished. Things like deepfakes are the next-gen tools that fictive artists will be using. Quite possibly, artists will in fact ramp up their work along the truth/fiction border rather than backing away from it. And I think it has real value in helping people to shift the assumptions that underlie their thinking— it’s always our assumptions that get us in the most trouble. Being fooled by a fictive art project stems directly from assumptions we make about what it is (as well as from our deductions based on the ‘evidence’ provided). But I always think that trying to predict the future is a bit of a sucker’s game, and the odds are that there are changes in art practice already percolating out there that no one yet has a name for.
Sting in the Tale is published by Doppelhouse Books, and available wherever such things are sold.
Here’s a further in-depth conversation between Antoinette and Heather Jessup of Dalhousie: