UPON ENTERING the New York Public Library’s South Court Auditorium on Friday for “Art / Truth / Lies: The Perils and Pleasures of Deception,” a panel on art hoaxes and “parafictions,” I was passed a survey that (I assume) was handed to every attendee of every event at the Franco-American liaison dangereuse known as the Walls & Bridges festival. Sponsored and curated by the Villa Gillet, a “unique cultural institute interested in thought in all its expressions” whose very existence points up the cultural chasm between France and America, the festival seeks to mingle writers, artists, theorists, and thinkers from the two nations. The survey solicited audience feedback, asking attendees to agree or disagree with statements like “It was intellectually challenging” and “It was very innovative.” The four-point response scale was a noble effort at multiculturalism, ranging from the very American “Yes, totally” (duuude), through the surprisingly British “Rather yes” and “Rather no,” to the mildly French “Not at all.” It ended by asking for your phone number.
I mention this because it felt like a meta-appetizer for the topic of the day—well-wrought artifacts that beggar credibility, smack of self-parody, and threaten to destabilize the enterprise in which they participate. Moderated by the voluble, intense D. Graham Burnett of Cabinet magazine, the panel paired Yanks Glenn D. Lowry, director of MoMA, and Carrie Lambert-Beatty, art historian, with Francs Pierre Cassou-Noguès and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, philosophers both.
Burnett welcomed the half-full room and joked that the postponement of the panel (due to the previous evening’s blizzard) was itself a hoax, an attempt to “make the event disappear and take the money.” He then described the seed idea for the topic: At an unrelated panel Burnett had attended on reason and rationality, one of the panelists presented an archive of materials from the “Amateur Coney Island Psychoanalytic Society,” a midcentury venture, led by one Albert Grass, to build an amusement park dedicated to teaching people about psychoanalysis.
The archive—photos, drawings, comics, plans—was fascinating. It was also completely fake, having been fabricated by the panelist. Burnett recalled discussing this with his colleagues afterward, wondering if it was “going too far.” Riffing on the malleability of history in the digital era, he allowed that there was a long tradition of this type of forgery but rhetorically asked whether the practice and its effects were changing, auguring a new era of covert inauthenticity and untrustworthy historical records. Stephen Colbert calls this “truthiness”; the panelists referred to it as “facticity.”
Lambert-Beatty moved to the lectern to deliver her presentation. Leading with a list of artists as hoaxsters and impersonators, she focused on Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s performance work Undiscovered Amerindians, shown at the Smithsonian in 1992. In the piece, the two artists presented themselves as live, outrageously adorned Native Americans from a previously unknown tribe, housed in a cage in the lobby of the museum. Half of the viewers bought the hoax, Lambert-Beatty said, and were furious at the Smithsonian when they learned the truth.
She then moved on to the Nikeplatz sculpture, erected in Vienna in 2003 by Eva and Franco Mattes, aka 0100101110101101.ORG. This fake corporate “urban renewal” effort in a drug-plagued neighborhood was slickly produced and installed, bamboozling Viennese for an entire month before the sneaker company forced its dismantling. Lambert-Beatty concluded with a discussion of media pranksters the Yes Men, mentioning their parody WTO website and Dow Chemical impersonation in the wake of the Bhopal chemical spill. Such works reside in the gray area “between the possible and the plausible,” she said. I thought to myself that while some of these hoaxes involved artists, they were squarely in the dark satiric tradition of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” using sustained, over-the-top fakery to make bald sociopolitical statements.
Cassou-Noguès came next, eschewing both PowerPoint and fidelity to English pronunciation. He spoke about the case of Nicolas Bourbaki, a fake Turkish mathematician created in the 1930s by a group of French mathematicians, who published a series of books on a new way of understanding and teaching the quantitative disciplines. Based on a fundamental deception, the works of Bourbaki had real and not entirely misleading effects on pure math, and he is still cited despite the long-standing awareness of his nonexistence. Hoax characters such as Bourbaki are not like characters in a novel by “Deekins,” Cassou-Noguès said; they instead enjoy a kind of “quasi-existence.”
Dressed like an Anglo version of a stylish mafioso—black suit, black shirt, violet handkerchief—Lowry gave a cogent presentation on the parafictional aspects of several contemporary Middle Eastern artists, keyed to the work of Walid Raad. A Lebanese artist who created a fake archive of documents and visual materials documenting Lebanon’s endless civil wars, Raad has successfully transferred the Borgesian sensibility into contemporary art, and the ersatz scholarship of his invented Atlas Group has for many years pointed to larger, real-world truths about the region.
Dupuy, who is clearly vying for the spot vacated by Baudrillard in the French cultural landscape, claimed that there was nothing new under the sun with regard to fakery in art and letters. He quoted Barthes: “All literature is a lie made manifest. It can say, ‘As I move forward, I point out my mask.’ ” He cited Borges and discussed the concept of literature as an Ouroboros, the self-devouring snake. Dupuy then moved to a rhetorical set piece on the character of Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, noting that the woman Kim Novak impersonates in the film for James Stewart is a “fiction within a fiction,” presenting a kind of philosophical paradox. How Žižek of him.
Burnett began the panel discussion, drawing a distinction between forgery—a lie that requires the viewer’s gullibility and has no life after its exposure—and fiction. Lowry built on this point by saying that, unlike hoaxes, parafictions allow viewers/readers to invest them with life and perpetuate them, even after the deception is revealed. To Burnett’s question about the philosophical tradition being about the separation of illusion from reality, Lowry responded that in repressive countries, parafictions are often the only way to air truths that cannot be spoken otherwise. Echoing his reading of Madeleine, Dupuy brought up a Derrida quote about money: “There can be no counterfeit money, because real money is already a sham.”
A brief Q&A followed, with one audience member asking, “I don’t mean to be a downer, but isn’t this stuff like Michele Bachmann asserting that the founding fathers ended slavery? We shouldn’t let artists off the hook.” I myself enjoy well-wrought hoaxes, pranks, and deceptions, in the arts or otherwise, but the lady had a point. Absent from both the tone and the content of the discussion was an acknowledgment that nonartist public figures are willfully and systematically distorting the historical record for seriously unfunny financial and political ends. Worst of all, they’re doing it without an ounce of wit or style, elements that can make even the most humiliating deception somewhat pleasurable.
As the event ended, the NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber correctly noted that the glaring omission from the day’s discourse was the word Irony. How utterly American.