In this essay for our new exhibition FAKE, Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA and one of the curators of the exhibition, talks about how, by being allowed to “fake it”, artists can tell the hard truth.
The origin of the word ‘fake’ is the Dutch word ‘feague’ which means “to increase the liveliness of a horse by inserting an irritant, such as a piece of peeled raw ginger or a live eel, in its fundament (anus).” I know that because it is on the internet.
Is it the real story? It is hard to know, and it seems that the etymology of the word is surrounded in confusion and controversy, which is quite appropriate for the idea of fake.
However, the eel in the horse anus as the historical origin of the word is a nice story, relating to the biological beginnings of the practice of making things appear to be something they are not.
Biology is full of such examples: flowers that looks like insects, harmless animals that look like venomous ones, and male bird variants that look like females so they can transfer their sperm through the cloaca of the masculine variants are just a few examples. When it comes to non-human fakes, we tend to consider fake in non-judgemental ways; we often marvel at the ingenuity of these survival and reproductive strategies. But when it comes to putting an eel up a horse’s anus in order to increase its value, we tend to be less forgiving. In most contexts, when humans engage in deception and non-genuine representation of an object, situation or event, it is deemed to be something negative, against societal norms, and in many cases punishable by law.
But we do grant some licence and allowances to make things appear to be something they are not. There is a group in human society that is encouraged to, and even celebrated for faking it.
The Yiddish name for a trick (as in, the action of the trickster) is Kunst, which is the Dutch, Danish, German, Norwegian and Estonian word for art. Artificial, which in many cases is synonymous with fake, also gives us a clue; a novelist can convincingly describe events that never happened, a painter or a sculptor can visually depict an object that never existed, all can twist and change reality in subtle and different ways and make things appear to be something they are not. You get my drift. However, interestingly, art operates on the notion of authenticity. Here, we deal not just with claims of authorship or following the intention of the author (in the case of the performing arts), but also with issues like the authenticity of the experience of an artwork when changing the context in which the art is being presented. We may say that art is the highest form of fake, as long as authenticity is maintained.
There is, however, another group that is explicitly prevented from faking it; members of this group are severely punished if found to use or provide non-genuine data or information. They are called scientists. The outcome of their work regards the ability to systemically verify their claims to be more important than the authenticity of the author or the experience. Science, as a knowledge-generating activity, can benefit enormously from failure. However, as issues such as prestige and economic outcomes are so integrated within the practice of science, the authenticity of the author and the reluctance to admit failure is driving a tendency to occasionally “put some eels in horses’ anus”. This is a risky business, so scientists do their utmost to conceal their attempts to make things appear to be something they are not.
In other words, the pressure on science to yield outcomes and favourable results is mounting; science increasingly seems to be driven to serve masters other than the somewhat romantic notion of the pursuit of knowledge and verifiable facts. These masters can be economic competitiveness, the innovation paradigm, political agendas, university rankings, etc.
So — and here it is getting interesting — it can be argued that artists, who often serve the same masters, have the potential to function as the court jesters of bygone eras. By being allowed to “fake it”, artists can tell the hard truth. That comes with a societal price tag: that of not being taken too seriously.
But these social contracts are dissolving and disintegrating. Designers are engaging with speculative fictions, technologists are calling their applied work science, artists are claiming that their work is ‘real’ and funding for understanding the world is diminishing in favour of finding ways to exploit it.
‘Alternative facts’ are considered to be as a valid form of journalism and our worldviews are formed in echo chambers.
As historian Yuval Noah-Harari reminds us in his book Sapiens, human societies are built on shared fictions. These shared fictions, like the social contracts mentioned above, are breaking down in the face of an onslaught of information. We seems to be losing our ability to distinguish between real fakes and fake fakes. The confusion that we all feel seems to be the only genuine and authentic feeling we share. I do hope that this exhibition would at least open up some sense of wonder into the true nature of fake.
FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? at Science Gallery Dublin is now open, Tuesday-Friday from 12:00 to 20:00 and Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 to 18:00. Visit dublin.sciencegallery.com/fake to find out more.