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Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax, and Provocation

Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax, and Provocation


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An illustrated survey of artist hoaxes, including impersonations, fabula, cryptoscience, and forgeries, researched and written by an expert “fictive-art” practitioner.

In her groundbreaking book, internationally recognized multimedia artist and writer Antoinette LaFarge reflects on the most urgent question of today: where does truth lie, and how is it verified? Encouraging readers to critically question the role art plays in shaping reality, Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax, and Provocation defines a new genre of art that fabricates evidence to support a central fiction. Interweaving contemporary "fictive art" practice with a lineage of hoaxes and impostures dating from the 17th century, LaFarge offers the first comprehensive survey of this practice.

The shift from the early information age to our "infocalypse" era of rampant misinformation has made fictive art an especially radical form as it straddles the lines between fact, fiction, and wild imagination. Artists deploy a wide range of practices to substantiate their fictions, manufacturing artefacts, altering photographs, and posing as experts from many different fields. A fictive-art practitioner herself, LaFarge explores and underscores the myriad ways art can ground or destabilize one's lived reality, forcing us to question our subjective experience and our understanding of what counts as evidence.

Many examples of these curious and sometimes notorious fabrications are included - from nonexistent artists and peculiar museums to cryptoscientific objects like fake skeletons and staged archaeological evidence. From the intriguing Cottingley fairy photographs "captured" in 1917 by teenage sisters, to the Museum of Jurassic Technology; from the work of artists like Iris Häussler, Joan Fontcuberta, and Eva and Franco Mattes to the enigmatic encyclopedia known as the Codex Seraphinianus, fictive art continues to reframe assumptions made by its contemporaneous culture. With all the attendant consequences of mistrust, outrage, and rejection, fictive art practitioners both past and present play upon the fragile trust that establishes societies, underlining the crucial roles played by perception and doubt.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781733957953
Publisher: DoppelHouse Press
Publication date: 08/24/2021
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 1,149,718
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Antoinette LaFarge is an internationally recognized new media artist with a special interest in speculative fiction and alternative histories. 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.

Read an Excerpt


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”—these artists 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 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.

Table of Contents

Foreword by G. D. Cohen


    Defining Fictive Art

    • Characteristics
    • Methods
    • Reception

    Invented Artists

    • Pseudonyms and Personae
    • The Alienable Self

    Speculative History

    • What Counts as History
    • Travelers' Tales

    Institutions & Movements

    • Fictive Museums
    • Artist as Institution
    • Geofictions and Micronations
    • Movements and Religions

    Cryptoscience & Taxonomic Inventions

    • Fictive Zoology and Paleontology
    • Fictive Botany
    • Fictive Archaeology
    • Taxonomic Inventions

    Conclusion: Culture Jamming and Social Media





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