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FAKE FOR REAL

A HISTORY OF FORGERY AND FALSIFICATION

(OCTOBER 2020 - OCTOBER 2021)

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In the routine of daily life, the sensational, spectacular and supernatural are sweet seduction. They allow us to escape the ordinary. But the game of deception is only fun when we have agreed to it. When we are deliberately deceived, we are on the losing side in many regards, losing our money, credibility, integrity or even our existence.

While the current quantity of (dis)information is unprecedented, the problem is an ancient one. History is filled with countless examples of fake masquerading as real. The Trojan Horse, a mythological archetype of deception, symbolically links ancient history to very contemporary problems of the internet-dominated world.

From the lessons of the past, a roadmap can be pieced together: one that lets us wander into the realm of the fantastical and fabricated when we want to, while providing an exit strategy for when we are ready to return to reality.
 

RULING AND PRAYING

What makes power legitimate? Since time immemorial, the political and the religious spheres have bolstered each other’s claim to power and legitimacy. Roman emperors became Gods; Popes held temporal power; the presence of saintly remains raised the prestige of holy sites. An emperor’s blemish-free record, the Pope’s airtight paperwork, the physical presence of a powerful saint – it can sound too good to be true. Fortunately, we do not have to reiterate the distorted testimonies of the past. The facts have been uncovered by the brave and the curious.

UNDERSTANDING THE WORLD

The invention of the printing press ushered in a new era with information becoming available on an unprecedented scale. But an ever-increasing quantity of information does not guarantee accuracy. Those in pursuit of fame and fortune were happy to spread false information to an audience eager for the latest discovery. Even the history of scientific research exhibits wilful forgeries. The possibility of being proven false is not a defect of the scientific method but an essential quality that differentiates it from other systems of making sense of the world.

UNITING AND DIVIDING

Fakes and forgeries were powerful instruments in the processes of creating ethnic and national identities in the 18th and 19th centuries. All over Europe, ‘patriotic’ fakes mixed with genuine historical discoveries reinforced national movements. The creation of modern nations required common histories but also common enemies. Forged documents, conspiracy theories and miscarriages of justice were used to create and condemn society’s scapegoats, with devastating and long-lasting consequences.

FIGHTING WAR

“Truth” has been described, in a phrase whose origin is still uncertain, as ‘the first casualty of war’. War is certainly a time when those engaged in it resort to falsehood and deception. During World War II, all of Europe became a battlefield, and choices of whom to trust had fundamental consequences. Establishing the facts of the crimes covered up and whitewashed by the totalitarian regimes became a task for the subsequent decades.

FAKE AND FORTUNE

Throughout history, profit has been one of the main reasons for producing forgeries. Works of art, luxury products, everyday consumer goods and currency are forged for financial gain. Faking what people most desire, be it a painting by a Dutch Old Master or a Louis Vuitton bag, has become a key element of the globalised consumerist society that we live in. But the fake has also been used to expose our insatiable desire for ‘more, cheaper and newer’, as in the ‘Czech dream’ experiment and documentary.

THE ERA OF POST-TRUTH?

The term ‘post-truth society’ describes a culture in which public opinion is shaped by emotion and personal belief rather than by facts. ‘Fake news’ is often considered its most apparent symptom.

However, fake news is not restricted to any specific era. What is special about the current situation is that modern means of communication, notably the internet, allow for its rapid spread and dissemination on a global scale. Confronted with an abundance of information emanating from innumerable sources, it is often difficult to determine what is true and whether a source is reliable.

Fortunately, there are ways of tackling these challenges: a critical mind that questions first impressions, an awareness of one’s own prejudices, and determining how serious the source is, may help us separate fact from fiction and navigate our way through the complexities of reality.