Carrie Lambert-Beatty: What Happens When an Artwork Deceives Its Audience?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WORK OF ART DECEIVES ITS AUDIENCE? The term “parafiction” refers to an artistic performance or presentation that depicts fiction as fact. This idea has particular relevance for our current post-truth moment, in which Americans find themselves overrun with conspiracy theories, misinformation, and fake news. In this episode, art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty explains how parafiction can actually help us sort out fact from fiction, and how reflecting on the experience of being tricked by a work of art can help train our minds to confront other kinds of information, both true and untrue, in the world around us.
A transcript from the interview (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview):
Lydialyle Gibson: What happens when a work of art deceives its audience? What does that experience of trickery teach us, especially in the era of conspiracy theory, post-truth and fake news? Artworks that present fiction as fact can spotlight the cultural fault lines around knowledge and have the power to alter contemporary ways of knowing. Welcome to Ask a Harvard Professor, the show where we talk to some of Harvard's most interesting minds about the big problems confronting the United States and the world. I'm Lydialyle Gibson, and today I'm joined by Carrie Lambert-Beatty, who has been a professor in the history of art and architecture and an art film and visual studies since 2005. Focusing on art from the 1960s to the present, she has written about art and activism, spectatorship and performance in an expanded sense. Her 2008 book, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s, analyzed the work of avant-garde dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker, Yvonne Rainer, and brought performance theory and dance history to the problem of how artists responded often at unconscious levels to the burgeoning media culture of the 1960s.
Professor Lambert-Beatty's current book in progress is A History of Art in Our Post-truth Moment. It will expand on the ideas she developed in a 2009 essay, Make-believe: Parafiction and Plausibility, which tracked the way art from the 1990s onward mixed fact and fiction. About her current project, she writes "Over three decades that saw the rise of the internet, the globalization of capitalism, the escalation of climate change and tireless struggles for racial justice and post-colonial accounting, the art of parafiction asked us not always nicely to practice curiosity, humility, reflectivity, and the ability to change our minds." Welcome Carrie Lambert-Beatty. We're so glad to be able to talk with you.
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: Hi. I'm glad to be here. I'm thrilled.
Lydialyle Gibson: Before we dive into specifics, I want to clarify what the term parafiction means and how you came to be interested in this topic. So what is parafiction and why study it?
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: So I define parafiction, as simply as I can, as times when fiction is presented as fact. I got interested in this material, mostly based on an experience that I had with an artist. I was in Vienna for a talk, and I was doing sort of studio visits with interesting artists that people put me in touch with, and there was this guy, Michael Blum, that people said I should talk to because he'd just done this really interesting project in Istanbul at the Istanbul Biennial, which is a major international art exhibition, and that's all they told me. And I went and I met Michael, who was lovely and great, and we sat in his studio, and he started telling me about what had happened when he was asked to go to Istanbul ahead of time and sort of get to know the city and think about what he wanted to do that would engage the history or present of that city.
A Tribute to Safiye Behar,
This is I guess in 2005, he would have been doing this, and he found that there was a lot of buildings that were being demolished and reconstructed at that moment in the city, and one of them was this historic building that it turned out had been the home of this woman, Safia Bahar, who turned out to be this amazing person. She was a Jewish-Turkish feminist in early 20th century Istanbul, and she worked in the bar that her father ran in that building, and turns out that that bar was one of the meeting places in the days of planning and thinking about the revolution that caused it to become the Turkish Republic. So it was this heady kind of place for political discussions and all kinds of people mixing, and she was right in the middle of it.
And it turns out that she had a long friendship with Mustafa Kemal, who's now known as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of the Turks, who remains this hugely important figure in Turkish politics and is known as the father of the Republic. And it turns out that this woman with her interest in Marxism and her feminism had some influence on Atatürk, and in fact may even have influenced his ideas. Some of the things that caused the Turkish Republic to be so progressive and modern in its early years, like giving women the right to vote, which they had earlier than women in France, for instance, and also the kind of secularism of the Turkish Republic, which is part of what made it such an incredibly progressive, interesting place in the early 20th century.
Okay. So he's telling me all of this, I'm like, "Yes. Okay. Interesting. Great," and he starts telling me about how what he decided to do was to give the space he had been allotted for his exhibition over to doing a historical museum about Safia Bahar. So he did historical research, he went and he went into the archives, he got letters, he got photographs. He wound up interviewing her surviving grandson in Chicago, put all of this together, got period furniture from the antiques market, set it up as like a house museum where you walk in and you see the house the way it would have been when Safia lived there and presented the story, just like a museum normally does.
A Tribute to Safiye Behar,
And he is explaining to me the different ways in which telling the story was important to the context of the exhibition and telling me all of this history and showing me slides of his installation, and I'm nodding and nodding and thinking, "Yeah, sure. Kemal, Turkish Republic, right." But I was a little shocked when he then paused in his recounting and said, "Well, but as you know, SafiaBahar never really existed. I made her up, and this is, of course as you saw, all constructed. She's a sort of fictional historical figure that I inserted into a real history and exhibition. That's what I did." And I of course probably turned 10 shades of red and was completely flustered and probably said something embarrassing, like "Yeah, sure. Yes, of course. Right," and we went on with this whole conversation.
That's when he told me about how it was significant, how she was the kind of person who is left out of histories, how there are people like Safia that were part of the story of that revolutionary period, but since they haven't been admitted into the archives or into the official history, he had to make her up, right? And he did it in this incredibly convincing way in his installation and in his recounting to me, and I was flummoxed. I was thrown and impressed, not just by the piece, but by my experience of it, because of course my first response was total embarrassment. Then my second response was anger, right? Because it was so embarrassing because he clearly could tell that I didn't know anything about this and had been pretending to or at least not admitting outright that I didn't know what he was talking about, and yes.
Lydialyle Gibson: So your first discovery of parafiction was by experiencing it firsthand?
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: That's right. Yes, it was, and I was super annoyed and frustrated. Like, why did he put me through that? He could have told me the whole story from the inside so I would have known that it was about his making up this fiction, and he had chosen not to. At first that made me really angry, and the more I thought about it though, the more interesting it seemed. Why would he have done it like that? That was an important part of the experience of that artwork that he had sort of performed for me so that I would get it, so I would experience it. What would make someone want to do that, and why would that experience of taking something fictional as fact and then finding out that it was fictional, why was that an interest, right?
One of the things that I try to think about as an art historian is the different experiences, the different ways of experiencing art that people have in different historical moments, so that different styles or versions of artistic work create different kinds of experiences for the spectator, and the experience for the spectator is part of what we can look at as an art historian. We can try to uncover it in various ways and understand why people would see work in this way or why that experience would be of relevance and interest in that historical moment. So I got kind of curious about this experience I had just had, and the minute I started being curious, I stopped being angry or embarrassed, right? And then of course that's how I should have been from the beginning. If I had just been curious and humble and said, "No, I don't actually know anything about this period. You've got to start from the beginning with me," then I would have had a totally different experience of it.
To me, that all was this very resonant experience, personally and art historically, and then it resonated with a lot of other artworks that I was hearing about and thinking about. It was also, this is the moment where the Jon Stewart Show is first a giant hit. This is the time Stephen Colbert launched his show. This is reality TV period. This is a time when the reality effects of the internet, the problems of faulty information online were very much in public discourse, and the resonance between those kinds of things is what got me interested in this.
Lydialyle Gibson: So a definition of parafiction is that it's fiction presented as fact. Is it as simple as that, or is part of it also that it's intended to be sort of discovered, found out the trick?
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: Yeah, to different degrees. So there's some parafiction, and Blum's piece is an example, where the typical experience is that it's very convincing until some later point, and that point will be different for different audiences, depending on a lot of factors. And so for Turkish audiences, one of the reasons they were not so surprised by Safia story is that they're kind of used to a certain government restriction on historical investigation that has to do with the Armenian genocide and this sort of control of that narrative historically in Turkey. And so I know people who said that their reaction was like, "Oh, of course. Another story that we just don't know, that he had this Jewish lover." And then they might have noticed, "Oh, her husband's name, the first name, isn't a name that was used in that period." It sounded like a very modern Turkish name, and so they might notice things like that, whereas a visitor from elsewhere would be able to walk through the whole thing without getting any of that information or any of that suspicion triggered.
So it can depend on who you are. It also depends on how closely you look or listen. There are all these factors involved on the part of the viewer and on the part of the artist in terms of whether that revelation experience is really marked like that, or whether what happens is you actually go through a sort of modulation of belief, right? You might be a little suspicious. You might sort of explain the oddities away, right? You might never be able to sort of get yourself back on firm ground in some of the artworks that we can talk about, but all of them share this shifting in your state, your belief state as you move through a time-based experience of this work. That time could be an hour, or it could be 20 years before suddenly the denouement of the piece happens where you read in a paper and in art history book that, "Oh my God, that was fiction." Yeah.
Lydialyle Gibson: So that sort of brings me to another question that I was wondering. I mean, you talk about sort of the temporal layers to sort of how parafiction works on people in the sort of layers of processing, but one thing I'm wondering is as you talk about how parafiction teaches us about ways of knowing, and I'm thinking also about the Karlsplatz, the Nikeplatz stunt and what you call the radical parodies of The Yes Men. You've talked about this a little bit, but what kinds of things do we learn about ways of knowing?
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: The sort of initial way that I think people talk about art like this has to do with lies and tricks and deception, hoaxes, and why the artist would do that, which is of interest, right? But what finally wound up being more interesting to me is what that spectator's experience, not necessarily visually a spectator, but that audience member, that recipient of the work, what's at stake in going through some of that sort of epistemic shifting, shifting that has to do with your knowledge state. It turns out that there were so many examples, and they really start happening in the early 90s, so I was trying to figure out what was bothering me about some of the typical ways people talk about are like this, which is about, say, do we ever know what's true? Is there truth, or is all that we have the constructiveness of the stories that are told to us, as if it were this more abstract philosophical kind of question about truth and knowledge, which seemed to me to leave out all of the kind of lived experience, the emotional and psychological side of going through knowledge shifts, right?
And I think that that's far more true to what's at stake in this art than a more abstract understanding of knowledge. So does that make sense? It shifts the way we talk about it so that it's not about the nature of truth, but the nature of how we know and what different ways that we can know different experiences of knowing.
Lydialyle Gibson: Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. And besides Michael Blum, what are some other examples of parafiction?
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: Some of the most notorious or well-known pieces are by a team of artists called The Yes Men who, starting around 2000, developed this technique that they called fun house mirror websites, where they made websites that looked just like the website of a target, somebody that they were sort of politically or ideologically in conflict with, and then periodically changed the content. Now, that's just fraud or disinformation, right? But at that point, which is so much earlier in the history of the internet, it was a strategy to introduce kind of critical parotic content.
So for instance, one of their first ones was GWBush.com, and this was during the first election in 1999-2000 when the internet was a major force. Karl Rove, the political strategist for Bush, was on it, right? So he bought up all the URLs that were like BushSucks.com and BushIsBad.org, But he didn't buy the ones that just seemed like other versions of Bush, right? That were believable, and didn't kind of foresee what they did, which was to create GWBush.com and just change the text a bit so that it revealed what they consider to be more truthful versions of his policies, for instance. That one got a lot of publicity.
There's another one, a website for Dow Chemical that they had made just as a website actually got used, and this is when things got really interesting. So they put up one of these parodies of Dow Chemical's website, and in particular making a critical point about Dow Chemical's failure to take responsibility for the chemical disaster in Bhopal, India in the 80s, which became its responsibility when it bought Union Carbide. Not to go into too much of the history, but they had made a piece that was called DowEthics.com. And that was about Dow. It was sort of exposing the hypocrisy of some of its spectral statements, but it looked just like the real Dow site.
That was the kind of way that this parody worked, and it had a contact us link, and someone at the BBC used it when they were doing a special on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe, and The Yes Men said, "Sure, we'll come. Yes, this representative of Dow Chemical would be happy to be on your show," and was on BBC Worldwide with 20 million viewers or something. One of the Yes Men wearing a suit, and announcing that Dow Chemical was now ready to put $12 billion into remediating the site. Dow Chemical was changing its mind and taking responsibility for this disaster, not knowing that it might hurt their stockholders, but deciding that doing the right thing was more important, and he just says this on worldwide television. You can find a video of it on YouTube. It's easy. It's kind of amazing, because the little chyron underneath his image, "Dow accepts full responsibility." It was like the breaking news, and it was taken seriously, and Dow's stock took a dip for a couple of hours until, of course, BBC announced that it wasn't true. They couldn't confirm it.
But in that time, this alternative reality had been floated, had seemed plausible that there could be a company that did that, right? And, in fact, the idea that accompany answers only to its stockholders and to the increase in the stock value, that's a pretty recent change in corporate philosophy. It's not like a law, at least not as a general policy. That's the way that capitalism has developed that's changeable, right? And now, we're living at a time when certain realities about capitalism in particular were unquestionable, right? Like, "Of course pursuit of your own best interest is how we create jobs and opportunities for people. Of course the stock market is the measure of a country's wellbeing." What they did is create this kind of moment where you could imagine something different, so.
Lydialyle Gibson: In the essay, you talk about how parafiction is not a new invention itself, and you talk about precedence in Dada and conceptual art and performance, Andy Kaufman, prankster activism of Act Up, and all of this sort of flowing in some way from Marcel Duchamp and his sort of subversions of artistic convention. But you have this quote that I really liked. You said, "Parafictions are so powerfully and uniquely appropriate to our historical moment, which is to say powerfully and uniquely troubling," and I wonder what you mean by that and what makes them sort of different from these other sort of predecessors?
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: Yeah, great question. What I meant by profoundly troubling is that if this is what is necessary or relevant for our time, what does that tell us about our time? It tells us that questions of how we can trust one another, how we can feel like we know things what's. So the question is what's different about our time, right? That makes it kind of relevant, and another important thing to say is that people have been complaining that, oh, their era is less ... People are less trustworthy. They have less belief in truth. I think probably every modern generation has had some version of that, and it's not as if ... Yeah, Nietzsche is another person who would totally understood, who would have thought that, yeah, the truth is the fiction, right? The regular, the normal state is deception and self-deception.
This is as old as human history, right? Some people will say, "Well, the minute you have language, you have the ability to lie." So it's not that it's just an art thing or just a recent thing. What's significant to me is within art history, the sharp uptick in the use of strategies like this that you see in the contemporary period, combined with the meaning of those things in this period. So one way I like to think about it is to take the idea of trompe-l'oeil, right? The trickery of the eye, which is any kind of painting where it's so realistic that what you're looking at, you take it as the thing rather than the image, which goes back to ancient Greece and has been used as this way to celebrate the skill of the artist all along through art history. So it's existed, and in a way, this is a continuation of that. It's not visual in the same way, but it is making that experience of an epistemic shift, the experience of art, right?
One of the things that's interesting to look at is the way that trompe-l'oeil, which is this kind of device that you can have in so many different ways, the way it's processed at different moments, right? So sometimes it's about the skill of the artist. Well, one example is there's this great book by Wendy Bellion about the use of trompe-l'oeil in the early American Republic in the very late 18th and early 19th century, where there was another sort of vogue for trompe-l'oeil experiences and painting and other kinds of trickeries, and there the way people talked about it was in terms of becoming discerning citizens, right? This is at a time when democracy itself was new, the ability to discern, to tell what was true and what was false was a kind of training you had to go through in order to create a society of responsible democratic citizens, right?
So it had this air of actually producing a more upstanding, a more sort of intelligent, active, ready citizen, as opposed to when people might talk about it in other periods, and it's about the sort of inadequacy of the subject, right? Every time you're fooled, then you're undone. So different ways of processing that experience that are based on a historical surround on the issues that are current for that culture, trying to then think, well, what are the issues in our culture that this kind of art is engaging?
Lydialyle Gibson: And that sort of leads me to something else I was going to ask you about. I mean, when you wrote this essay, it was a decade ago. It was the end of the Bush presidency, and the broader context for you was the Iraq invasion and the rise of the internet and blogs and reality TV and Colbert and truthiness, and a lot has happened since then.
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: I know, yeah.
Lydialyle Gibson: And now we're into Donald Trump and fake news and QAnon and everything else, and I'm kind of wondering what it's like to be writing this book now, and have your ideas about parafiction changed? Or has parafiction changed since the essay came out?
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: Yes. All of that. It's definitely slowed down the process. Each time I feel like, "Okay, now I'm getting it. I'm getting close to the end," something happens that makes it both more relevant and needing to be kind of rethought. As a historian of contemporary art, it's already a problem that what you're writing about quickly becomes historical if you take too long—that's what I love about it, is you're really writing the history of the almost present. In this case, one thing that I think is important is to see that history, to not feel like Trump came out of nowhere with this new disrespect for truth, and people who, because of social media, people no longer care about whether things are true or not as if there is no history to that, even this very recent history, right? So one of the things I think is important is to see the continuities from that earlier period and how things kind of gradually shift, but also gradually set the stage for what was allowed to happen, what has happened more recently.
One way, I think it can be helpful to look at this art is as these kind of lessons, these pointers from the past about what we could've done, what we should have learned in that decade before, right? That all of this art that was happening, especially from right around 2005, 2006, 2007—that period has a lot of it—and I like to think of it as each of these artworks has its own very specific subject matter. The artist is doing it for very specific reasons in relation to that subject matter, but collectively, they put viewers through these certain shifts in knowledge around particular issues, and by looking at them, you can sort of think of them as projecting ways of knowing. Like, the viewer who understand this work or the viewer who would not be deceived would be thinking in different ways, right? Would have a different attitude toward going into any kind of knowledge situation.
In the field of social epistemology, they talk about different cultures and populations having different epistemic values, right? Different moments at which something feels true, right? Different attitudes as you encounter things that are true or things that are false or things that are undecidable, different outcomes that you'll accept. Like, will you accept a contradiction as a kind of knowing, right? And so that's in anthropology and so on as there a way that you can look at culture that I think is really helpful in this case, that we can think of there being this set of epistemic values, virtues, things that we desire, practices and habits. Just as a really concrete example is I remember the moment at which I started noticing the URL in dealing with the internet. When you notice, you had to learn that dot gov meant it was from the government, and dot com meant it was commercial, and that when things were off, right—I was on NPR's site, and it was dot com that that was suspicious.
I think that we all have different versions of that, different ways that we got used to the scam emails, and you have to learn it by experiencing it usually, but that's a particular kind of skill that this new medium needed us to learn, and that could be part of a kind of epistemic set, a sort of attitude toward what we know and don't know, what it's like to know and how we try to know. And at the biggest level, I think that the set that a lot of us in this society have been carrying isn't adequate any longer, isn't working for the media condition and the political conditions and the economic conditions that have changed in the world and in the US.
What gets labeled post-truth, this sort of style of dealing with knowledge, which is to say a more ... I like to think of it as team-based attitude toward knowledge. That word that people use is tribal, right? So that you believe what your community believes, what fits your values, right? That's something that we feel like people are relying more on that than on the virtues or values of classical epistemic set, which would be about criticality and honesty and self-examination. So one of the things I wonder is whether even the style of dealing fact and information that we see in the Trump presidency, which is so aberrant, but also this extreme case of a wider sort of changed attitude that maybe that's the really contemporary way of knowing, but it's a really reactionary, bad way of knowing.
So what we need is not to go back to the classical sort of ideal of what Western knowledge is like, where you look for certainty and you test your hypotheses and you expect people to be speaking truth, and you look for consistency, all of those kinds of values. Going back, which is what a lot of the literature, the critical literature about post-truth is like, "We have to return to the truth. We have to become more rigorous again." That's kind of missing the way in which we need to change, and so what would be the elements of a progressive contemporary epistemic set, right? I think that this art can be a source for thinking about that, for getting aware of ways that we could approach truth, fact, fiction, knowledge that are relevant now, that could be an alternative to the post-truth sort of formation.
Lydialyle Gibson: You have this great quote in the essay where you say, "In experiencing most parafiction where the fictional hangs on the factual, one is evaluating not only whether a proposition is fictional but what parts of it are true. Parafictions train us in skepticism and doubt, but also, oddly, in belief."
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: Yeah. So that is a really important point for me, because again, an easy way to explain away the value of this art is to say, "Ah, it's teaching us to be more skeptical," right? And that's what a lot of the responses to fake news, to misinformation and disinformation are saying now. "Be more rigorous. Don't only read the news that agrees with you." To me, that's too simple in terms of talking about that art, and it's not super helpful in talking about how we could think about a healthier sort of information ecology, maybe. So for instance, you have to find the points at which you believe things, right? It's not just about always being skeptical. If you're always skeptical, then first of all, the human brain, just isn't programmed to do that. It's programmed to communicate so that we have truth by us and all of these sort of built-in things that get in the way of this ideal of the skeptical critical knower.
And I'm not saying that we need to be unskeptical, just that there's still so much space in there that we're not accounting for if it becomes just a model of skepticism/gullibility, right? That's why I think these art experiences where you go through these many different stages and then something happens and you reflect back on them, how interesting those are. Yeah, so instead of that kind of rigorous ideal, which I think is almost a very Protestant kind of model that what if we thought about play instead of strictness? What if we thought about curiosity as what drives us to find out more, rather than discipline being how we are moved to find out things?
I think that sometimes maybe I'm being overly generous in my reading of the stakes or implications of these projects, because they're different for different people, but I find it really helpful to look at these situations that artists have staged in terms of how they might change us towards certain capacities, right? Like, the capacity to change your mind, to see the evidence and decide that you were wrong, and the kind of resistance that we have to that which might always be there, but which we don't have to always process the same way, right? We could just, instead of training ourselves for skepticism, we could train ourselves to not feel like our dignity is at stake every time we're wrong. Maybe your dignity is at stake every time you're not curious. You see what I mean? Like, how does a culture change? If the culture has changed towards some of the pathological sides associated with this post-truth idea, could this art be pushing us towards change of a different kind? So, yeah.
Lydialyle Gibson: Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Lambert-Beatty. It's such a pleasure to talk with you.
Carrie Lambert-Beatty: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.
This episode of Ask a Harvard Professor was hosted by Lydialyle Gibson and the season is produced by Jacob Sweet and Niko Yaitanes. Our theme music was created by Louis Weeks. This third season is sponsored by the Harvard University Employees Credit Union and supported by voluntary donations from listeners like you. To support the podcast, visit harvardmagazine.com/supportpodcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts. Contact us with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.