The following text is based on the idea of art as “fake science”. It addresses the underlying issues of truth of art; authority; post-truth and other alternative facts. He speaks of Orwell’s “revival”; of Instagram’s masterpiece and of our complicated relationship with online truth. Examples of “fake science” are mentioned: a scientific hoax and works that make it an abyss. We talk about post-reality and the negotiation that this implies, then we end with a “short cut”.
Art as “Fake Science”.
When I see or hear the phrase “art and science”, one of the things I think about quite spontaneously are artistic proposals that mimic science, or at least suggest some form of experiment or scientific research. It’s a bias, of course. I come from the art world, I think art first: I see real art, and false science. But also, I know that it is art: I am in a gallery, I read a text where the object of my attention is qualified as a work, and the latter is among other objects that also seem to be works, silence reigns, I am alone in this space – it is art. The signs are not deceiving. And yet, what I perceive as false science, “fake”, is perhaps not so false. This forgery may be the bearer of truth, but as if in the hollow, in the image of what was called counter-knowledge in one of the first texts of this blog: Approaching the idea of counter-knowledge (opening windows and turning around the formless).
What the fake can contain real
Even at the bottom of the false pit, there is usually a seed of truth. We do not build lies on nothing: they are built from the debris of an x reality. This applies to the work of imagination, creation – art, literature, cinema, etc. – but also to the news and information that reaches us: there are always anchors in reality to varying degrees. In this sense, one could say that the false is from the outset a form of derivative of the true. One can also say, on the other hand, that the true originates from the false and this, in at least two ways. Let us think of the false paths of scientific research which finally opened the way to real discoveries (read again the text The opposite of the illumination of my colleague Miguel Aubouy to have some examples). Then in a work of art: how what at first seems to have nothing to do with truth – contemporary art, for example, is sometimes accused of deceiving the public, of being an imposture, and therefore of not being in the “real” – ends up generating meaning and revealing truth.
The truth of art, however, is relative. It does not, for example, have the authority of science. What it states is often a combination of intuition, emotion and imagination which, although rooted in reality, is nevertheless subverted. It is that art seeks to say something other than what we already know from reality.
Truth and authority: the right to question
Are we aware that a truth – a verifiable fact – is directly linked to the authority that states it? And when the figures of authorities change, it is also the world that changes: what it contains is then reassessed, remixed, put back into the balance. The loss of common anchors is always a trapdoor that opens under our feet. And this fall necessarily leads to a floating form of instability, of variable duration – it can be fertile and inspiring, as well as paralyzing and disturbing.
Authority figures do not change overnight and science remains one of the highest authorities in terms of factual knowledge. Nevertheless, there are groups that believe that the earth is flat, that man has never been to the moon, or that adhere to the creationist theory, which benefits many followers, especially in the United States. All this exists and, far from being inactive, these groups are increasingly demanding their public voice. With democracy 2.0 increased, the word is now given to everyone and the Internet shouts its thousand and one truths in a bewildering digital noise.
We will not go back: the word given will not be taken back, the Internet and social networks will not cease to exist unless there is a global “shut down”. One can, however, imagine a 1984’ian dystopia where totalitarian control and censorship surface. Since 2014 China has been talking about setting up a numerical scoring system to evaluate citizens based on their online data. She recently announced that as early as May 2018, the lowest rated individuals – with the worst “social credit” – will be banned from flying out of the country for up to a year – but that’s another story. Meanwhile, in the United States, groups are claiming their right to legitimacy on the grounds that they believe differently from official ideological currents and agreed certainties. It does not matter whether the facts have been verified many times, because it is precisely the issuing authority that is being called into question. It is a question of trust in this authority that is at stake. As amazing as it may seem to some people, it is indeed hard to believe that the earth is flat (even if, in my opinion, cats would already have thrown everything at the bottom of the flat disc if that were the case). That is to say that a part of the population with whom we cohabit is drinking “custom” fake milkshakes – to each his own diet will say some, but shouldn’t we be worried?
What happens to the value of evidence in a world where no one asks for it anymore? Doesn’t evidence become lost data? Ghost data haunting us?
Post-truth, alternative facts and fake news: Orwell’revival
What exactly should we understand by “post-truth”? Wiki says that “post-truth differs from traditional contestation and falsification of truth by relegating it to a concern of secondary importance compared to an appeal to emotion. Although it has been described as a contemporary problem, it may have been part of political life for a long time, but it was less visible before the advent of the Internet and related social changes. “So the digital age is changing the game – are we surprised? It also reflects more clearly the strategy of distracting our attention from the facts.
As some will recall, “alternative facts” is an expression that was first used by Kellyanne Conway, an American counselor, in a Meet the Press interview in January 2017, in which she defended the false statement of White House press secretary Sean Spicer regarding public assistance at the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. On this subject, Wiki reveals that the expression – “alternative facts” – has been widely described as Orwellian. Four days after the interview, sales of the book “1984” had increased by 9,500%, which the New York Times and other media attributed to Conway’s use of the phrase, making the book the number one bestseller on Amazon.com. Manoeuvring with non-truth or lies is not new, but as this “1984” sales explosion suggests, it can lead to unexpected places – totalitarian and fascist places, but also places where stupidity dominates, where emptiness and nonsense are the norm. Which, in the end, is more pernicious, since it is unofficially criminal.
The alternative facts and the media are currently going hand in hand, they are definitely living an intense love story. False news has become commonplace in the media landscape. We all know that they spread everywhere in interwebs, so we must also know that we are necessarily manipulated to varying degrees. They can be satirical or parodic (The Onion for example), which is the positive aspect of its “evil” towards, that is, the fabricated and misleading content, as well as propaganda. One of the problems with this scourge is the profitability of false news: “clickbait” content is a comfortable nest for advertising revenue. That being said, the phenomenon follows its course by following the thread towards easy money.
We now live in a world where the false dominates. Falsehood, lies and counterfeiting have never been more present than now. Whether we are talking about communication, information, policy or marketing/imaging, just about anything that comes to us – whether through internets or other media – has the potential to be questioned. The Internet in particular is the ideal vehicle for misinformation and propaganda. The very nature of digital makes it easier and faster to spread. Or rather: it facilitates and accelerates the propagation of all types of content, including fakes. Digital modalities are accessible and ubiquitous: smart phones – should we rather say computers – who is still talking on the phone today? are in everyone’s hands, and the screens, under everyone’s eyes; all the time, everywhere. Constant connection is the norm. Attention, no judgment here: I do not escape it. However it is the “open bar” for the full “fake” total.
Status: “It’s complicated”
Our relationship with online reality has become complicated. It is no longer possible to believe what we see. Who can say what we really see? Applications like FaceTune, downloaded in a single click for almost nothing, do a virtuoso Photoshop job, worthy of high-end advertising from before the nineties. Anything found online can – and to some extent must – be absolutely perfect: average faces and mediocre breakfast photos “exit”, the light is clear and the skin smooth. How can we still live in the real world? Are we still living in a real world?
Let’s go back to 2014 and remember the case of Amalia Ulman, that girl who cheated everyone with her Instagram art project. I recently read in Dazed – who published an article on the occasion of the publication of a book on this project – that “the digital artist spent four months preparing (it is written, in English, “to curate”) an Instagram profile documenting the life of a young girl trying to make her place in Los Angeles. We watched Ulman’s story unfold,[photo after photo] culminating in a (fake) breast augmentation operation and a public apology. When nearly 90,000 followers were invested in Ulman’s life, she announced that it had all been a hoax. »
“The performative piece is entitled “Excellencies & Perfections” and caused a sensation in the art world. Not only has Ulman masterfully highlighted the ability of social media to mislead, but she has also created what critics have called “Instagram’s first masterpiece. In 2016, the piece was included in a group exhibition at the Tate Modern, “Performing for the Camera,” making her the first social media artist to enter a prestigious contemporary art institution. Today, “Excellencies & Perfections” is more relevant than ever, foreshadowing our increasingly unhealthy relationship with Instagram and questionable notions of online truth. “Does the online truth only exist? Isn’t everything, to varying degrees, “stagnant”?
In a way, artists always deal with something that we might call “beyond the truth”. Creating is often linked to a transformation of reality and to the different truths that constitute and construct it. Reality is complex and complexity contains many truths, all true at the same time. What can we do with that? What do we really do with it?
Meanwhile, in the world of science
The scientific world can also be the place of notable hoaxes: it is not exactly untouchable. For example, the SCIgen project is a significant contribution to the world of “fake sciences” (thanks to Philippe-Aubert Gauthier for bringing this project to my attention). It is an algorithmic computer program, using non-contextual grammar, to generate senseless texts in the form of scientific articles dealing with computer science. Created by MIT scientists – Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn and Dan Aguayo – the project aimed to demonstrate the lack of seriousness of some academic conferences and journals that accept proposals for presentations without checking their basic foundations.
SCIgen attracted media attention in 2005 when the team submitted a proposal entitled Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy to the World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI) and the authors were invited to make a presentation. As a result, they revealed the hoax and the invitation was withdrawn. In spite of this, they still went on the spot, by their own means, behind the official cohort, and they performed occasional presentations in order to denounce the state of the situation in the academic scientific community. The submission of false articles, and fraud in research in general, is not new and, seen from the outside, we are right to be surprised at this relaxation of the rigour so valued in the world of science. The pressure exerted on researchers in order to fit into a logic of quantitative rather than qualitative performance can be pointed here (read again on this subject When science is broken or some considerations on quantitative management in science as in art written in duet with my colleague Miguel Aubouy). Moreover, isn’t the qualitative aspect taken for granted in science? The issue certainly deserves consideration.
The Appearance of Science
If the “fake” is now everywhere, infiltrated – if not well established – in almost every environment and every sphere of our lives, it does not present the same face to art. After all, isn’t the latter a pure lie? A socially acceptable lie, however, almost moral, even virtuous. And in any case: encouraged, applauded, admired. A lie that we accept as healthy: because art lies for us, in our place. Is it not the last space in our cultures where reversing the true-false polarity allows us to glimpse meaningful possibilities? Similar to post-truth: truth, in art, is secondary. Often operating on the mode of the call to emotion, art positions itself at odds with the notion of truth. He is thus entitled to state misinterpretations, to simulate situations, to invent images and objects of the world, to invent worlds.
And sometimes art hides itself in false science, thus taking on the appearance of authority. In doing so, he makes a mockery of both science and authority. Two works by Brussels artist Mathieu Zurstrassen spontaneously come to mind: 528HZ* and I Love You / I Hate You, TDS*.
528HZ* or Talisman Incubator is an installation consisting of “fortune cookies” suspended under glass bells and subjected, over a period of 48 hours continuously, to the emission of a sound frequency of 528Hz – corresponding, in “fake sciences”, to a soothing and repairing frequency. It could, according to some, modify DNA and cure diseases. Miraculous frequency, it would be a vector of connection with oneself and nature. None of these beliefs have been scientifically proven, although a significant number of people actually believe in them. A second “layer” of meaning is superimposed on the work by the use of glass bells and a device capable of generating sound waves, undeniably reminiscent of scientific tools. In the same way, the use that is made of it imitates a semblance of scientific protocol. Then the “fortune cookie” closes the loop of this experiential work by adding the ultimate added value. Because of all the objects that can be incubated under the bell, the famous oracle biscuit is itself a “fake” incubator. Bearer of a divinatory message at a discount, he is here (falsely) optimized – magically or scientifically, it depends. You can obtain the said biscuit, attested by a certificate of authentication numbered and signed by the artist.
Operating on a similar register, the installation I Love You / I Hate You, TDS* – Trump Derangement Syndrome / Impartiality Bot is inspired by a true “fake science”. It is written on the artist’s website that “in 2004, the self-proclaimed doctor Masaru Emoto became famous with his experiments on water molecules. “These have supposedly “demonstrated” that human thoughts and intentions could eventually alter physical reality such as the molecular structure of water. Emoto filled two beakers with water: one with positive incantations and the other with negative ones. He then microscopically analyzed the crystal structure produced after freezing the two samples. One had a perfectly ordered structure and the other a completely disordered structure. These experiments were never reproduced in a laboratory environment and Emoto refused any scientific reproduction of his experiments. But success was there, and a significant audience had already embraced these beliefs. A few years later, after making his fortune with his theories, he made another demonstration of the power of negative/positive thinking. This new experience has been named “The Rice Experiment”. Emoto placed identical portions of cooked rice in two containers. On the first beaker he wrote “thank you” and on the other “you are an idiot”. He then asked schoolchildren to read aloud the text on the jar labels every day. After 30 days, the rice in the container with positive thoughts remained barely altered, while the other became black. »
“The installation I Love You / I Hate You, TDS* attempts to reproduce this famous experience. A connected computer records all tweets written by the current president of the United States on the one hand and by the Twitter account “Love Quotes” on the other. Every 25 seconds, a synthetic voice reads aloud the collected tweets: the sound is diffused through a loudspeaker placed under one and the other of the beakers, containing exactly the same quantity of a high quality Venetian rice. The fully automated experience runs continuously for 30 days. »
Addressing the theme of popular beliefs and the disturbing success of the unverified data available online, as well as the manipulation of this information, the installation plays with a certain irony before the question of the “fake”. It points towards the lack of rigour of a fake science while at the same time benefiting from this failure. For it is precisely this fault in the building that becomes both the pretext to create and the (cracked) foundation of creation. But where science has a duty to stand guard and be wary, art has fun and celebrates.
Alternatively, you can always eat rice with your milkshake, then finally choose a “fortune cookie” – hoping to read the truth of a sweet and bright future.
Negotiating with reality
When I see or hear the phrase “art and science”, I sometimes see a high wall of incommunicability with, on the one hand, art (in jubilation) and, on the other, science (overwhelmed). My posture is such that I see both: I have a lateral view where the wall appears to me in cross-section. I see their similarities and differences, but they don’t see each other. From my privileged point of view, it would be easy to arrange a meeting. In my head they are already talking, they are even surprised never to have met: they have so much in common. But in reality, there is a high opaque wall between them, possibly of stone. Do they even know each other exists?
Art as a “fake science” – as well as art-science collaborations more and more present, especially in university laboratories – certainly represents the beginning of something: the beginning of a negotiation between art, science and reality? Negotiating with reality means making concessions. We must compromise and enter into processes of compromise between objective facts and our biased perception; between demanding truth and resorting to lies; blindly believing in science and supporting the gaze of art. But these oppositions are imaginary, they do not reflect reality, and it is there that the negotiation becomes interesting because it becomes more complex. The reality is grey like our spring of recent weeks and, despite appearances, it is not as fixed as we think. With the proliferating post-truth, it is a fallow post-reality that awaits the heat of the sun.
Aren’t we all looking for the truth? Is this not an existential quest for each of us? In this sense, we can assume that the post-truth “fake” represents for some a “short cut”.
Images (top) : Fortune Cookie – photo by Charles Deluvio (unsplash.com) / Psychic Fortune Teller – photo by José Antonio Gallego (unsplash.com).
Images (body text): memes found on the web.
Images of the works: 528HZ* and I Love You / I Hate You, TDS* – photos by Mathieu Zurstrassen (courtesy of the artist).
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator