For my recent residency at the Calder, Hepworth Wakefield – part of Pavilion’s Follies of Youth exhibition (2 April – 31 May), I asked visitors to help me build a fake history. After years of doing ‘real’ research, it was like a breath of fresh air to play with facts and testimonies, to pick and plunder facts that stand out to me as ‘interesting’. The idea behind my ‘mapping exercise’ was that participants were invited to add or expand upon selections from the research archive materials, which had been gathered by the group of artists, writers and research known as ‘Follies’. Through this engagement and transformation of historical facts, they were asked to imagine a new, fake history, building on observations which are subjective in the first place.
Most historians will tell you that history is written by the ‘winners’, predominantly white men in positions of power. Particular events and details are pieced together and further narrativised by researchers, who comb archives for information that they deem useful or relevant (to some extent reflecting their own views and biases), often with a particular aim in mind. Histories are made up. They are assemblages of facts and descriptions, with holes and gaps filled in with informed (and not-so-informed) speculation. Perhaps more important is the vast amount of information – events, people, things, reflections on all of the above – which are omitted or left out of official histories. It would be impossible to collate and present in any discernible or compelling manner all the details surrounding a place, event or life, even if those details had been preserved in their entirety. This is increasingly reflected in some people’s desire to document every moment of their lives – from the banal to the spectacular – with new technologies designed to do precisely that. Perhaps that’s a good illustration of my point: think of a facebook friend who compulsively uploads photos, selfies, instagram shots and videos. The result is a bland continuum of images that by their very quantity and random regularity render your friend boring and tedious. Histories, unlike facebook timelines, are carefully crafted things. Like a story, they have beginnings, middles and ends; protagonists and antagonists; conflicts and resolutions.
At the same time histories present themselves as authoritative, objective documents. They act as proof and testament that people existed and things happened, and that they happened in a particular order, often causally. For anyone who has ever attempted to piece together a history, you’ll know the overwhelming temptation to make links, to draw conclusions and to make one thing follow on from another (or across time and place). As you gather more and more facts and evidence from different sources, the process starts to resemble assembling a puzzle, as if each piece has it’s intended place. In reality, things are much more complicated, arbitrary and mixed up. It’s often our tendency to want to make sense of things, and to give them entertainment value, that causes us to arrange things in a particularly pleasing order. So, giving myself (and others) the task of compiling a fake history made me think about these creative processes, and how they are turned out as authentic reflections on history. What kind of language – choice of vocabulary, style, tone – is employed to convince and seduce the reader? What makes a history seem feasible, logical or true? What makes a fact significant or worthy of note? How reliable are the secondary sources that many historians rely upon, and how does this create a layering of fictions posing as fact? To clarify (and state the obvious), there are many ways to write history and some attempts are more rigorous than others.
For my Follies of Youth project, I was interested in what I think is a fundamentally and unavoidably creative act of gathering together and presenting information as history. In other words, I wanted to explore its artful properties, its artifice. I recently stumbled across the concept of the ‘false document’, what Wikipedia defines as
‘a technique employed to create verisimilitude in a work of fiction… By inventing and inserting documents that appear to be factual, an author tries to create a sense of authenticity beyond the normal and expected suspension of disbelief for a work of art. The goal of a false document is to convince an audience that what is being presented is factual’
Examples include fake police reports, newspaper articles, bibliographical references, documentary footage, or using the legal names of performers or writers in a fictional context. Authors and filmmakers use false documents to validate (even if artificially) a conceit, referring back to them within the text as if they are authentic materials (literary examples might include Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, and The Handmaid’s Tale; though these are debated in an associated Wikipedia Talk page, and the jury is currently out on what distinguishes a false document from a mockumentary film).
What seems to emerge out of this debate is whether or not a false document is a form of willing forgery – made with the intent to deceive audiences or readers – and/or revolves around the idea of fakery or forgery. The classic example of the latter is Orson Well’s F for Fake, a falsified video-diary of Elmyr de Hory’s recounting of his career as a professional art forger, starring Orson Welles, who also plays himself, and ‘hoax-biographer’ Clifford Irving. Such works consciously blur the line between fact and fiction, to such an extent that audiences are sometime duped into thinking their stories are true. Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver (1995) fooled an entire nation into believing in a lost national treasure in the form of New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who, the film purported, single-handedly invented the tracking shot (by accident) and the close-up (unintentionally). (In)famously, Jackson was forced to publicly apologise for the hoax, which had caused viewers to cultivate false pride for an auteur who was a complete fabrication.
In a similar way, architectural follies make a mockery of history. Those fashioned as ruins, also called ‘shams’, pretend to be older than they actually are, whilst others appear as functional buildings from a distance whilst serving only an ornamental purpose. They are subversive by way of their very falseness, they make us question the authority of historical styles and their uses, such that it is difficult for non-experts to tell a Neo-Gothic ruin from its much older prototype (which may indeed, be more structurally intact). A ruin made new is a playful diversion, and its very existence makes us question our enduring fascination with deterioration. It raises the question I’ve asked here before – why build a folly? It has no use other than to point backwards to a constructed notion of history, or the passage of time, as embodied in the ornamental ruin.
At the Calder we set about making up history, in part an attempt to animate the lost landscapes of Capability Brown (Byram Park, Whitley Beaumont and Stapleton), and to invite participants to think about the past in more abstract, creative terms. The resulting co-authored, edited narrative functions as a folly, a false construction that reveals the unavoidable but often denied artificiality of history. It reveals the processes of history-making: the selection and elaboration of certain ‘facts’ by individuals at a particular point in time. In this way, it is both a comment on our contemporary moment and a false document, evidence of an imagined past.
Download our fake history here: And so throughout history: a consortium of facts.