A false document is a literary (or artistic) device which attempts to create in the reader (viewer, audience, etc) a sense of authenticity beyond the normal and expected suspension of disbelief. That is, it wants to fool the audience briefly into thinking that what is being presented is actually a fact.
In practice, the device takes a very simple form. The work of art (be it a text, a moving an image, a comic book or whatever) usually is composed of or includes some piece of forgery. The false document effect can be achieved in many ways including faked police reports, newspaper articles, bibliographical references and documentary footage. The effect can be extended outside of the confines of the text by way of supplementary materials like badges, ID cards, diaries, letters or other objects.
The moral and legal implications of false document art are, by necessity, complex and perhaps insoluble. The difference between a great artistic achievement and a stunning forgery is slim. Sometimes the false document technique can be the subject of a work instead of its technique, though these two approaches are not mutually exclusive as many texts which engage falseness do so both on the literal and the thematic level.
Origin of the false document technique
The technique is chiefly associated with postmodernism, but is both older than that movement, and also encompasses art pieces and activities outside of the scope of art usually considered part of any "artistic movement."
It seems to grow out of the epistolary novel but has more in common with the newspaper serial from which it draws most of its technique. The conceit is most commonly used where a heightened sense of authenticity is required for the desired effect of the story to be maintained. Blurring the line of reality and fiction is an important component or horror, mystery, detective or fantasy narratives because they wish to engender in a reader a sense of wonder, and of danger, both of which need to feel more present then a typical narrative form would allow. For this reason, false documentary techniques have been in use for at least as long as these literary genres have been around. Frankenstein draws heavily on a forged document feel, as does Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and many of the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
False Documents in Art
Orson Welles' F for Fake is a prime example of a film which is both about falsification (art forgery and the journalism surrounding art forgery) as well as having falsified moments within the film. The movie follows the exploits of a famous art forger, his biographer Clifford Irving, and the subsequent "fake" biography of Howard Hughes that Irving tries to publish. The issues of veracity and forgery are explored in the film while at the same time, Welles tricks the audience by incorporating fake bits of narrative alongside the documentary footage.
Another artist who has run afoul of the technique is the artist JSG Boggs, whose life and work have been extensively explored by author and journalist Lawrence Weschler. Boggs draws currency. He draws with exceptional care and accuracy. But he only ever draws one side. And then he attempts to "buy" things with the piece of paper upon which he has drawn the currency. His goal is to pass each bill for its face value in common transactions. He buys lunch, clothes and lodging in this manner, and his bills after the transactions are complete fetch many times their face value on the art market along with accompanying evidence (receipts, photos and the like) which prove the veracity of the actual transaction. Boggs does not make any money off of the much larger art market value of his work. He only exists on the profit of the actual transaction. He has been arrested in many countries, and there is much controversy surrounding his work.
Mostly, however, the technique is employed in more mundane ways that hark back to its nineteenth century origins. Whether or not a particular piece of art is a false document, or is using false documentary techniques in a central way, is of course arguable. Usually, the character and extent of the use is examined.
False Documents, Fakery and Forgery
Documentary filmmaking, and other attempts at actual documentation, can wittingly and unwittingly participate in the form as its goals of authenticity are so closely aligned with direct false documentation (that is, in both cases there is an element of authenticity and an element of narrative fudging). In Schwarzenegger's Pumping Iron for example, Arnold talks about how his father died in the months preceding a major body building competition. He uses this anecdote to illustrate how important the final months before a competition are to truly dedicated bodybuilder. He says that, though his father's funeral was set during the penultimate month, he did not attend because he could not be distracted from training. However, in the companion book it is revealed that as the time of printing, Arnold's father had not died. It does not say the story was a lie, it merely provides contrary evidence. Schwarzenegger was executive producer of both the film and the companion book. It is unclear what the purpose of the falsification exercise was, but it has been theorized by Professor Sally Robinson that Schwarzenegger was intentionally undermining his own narrative, effectively creating a mildly self-deprecating re-examination of his own obsessions for perfection at any cost. In the end, whether Arnold intentionally fabricated the story for a desired effect is left to the audience.
This has left open a very troubling debate. The divisions between the creation of authenticity through documents and actual authenticity in documentary evidence is unclear. The distinction between an "official" document and a forgery is sometimes only as clear as the prevailing political winds. Confederate Currency from the American Civil War and the Japanese Dollars printed by Japan in WWII in anticipation of taking American lands both illustrate the ambiguity of even the most officially produced documents. The work of Mr. Boggs further complicates the issue.
What divides an artistic endeavor from a political one or an economic one rests, almost entirely, on the ephemeral issue of intent.
False Documents in Art
- Fernando Pessoa
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
- F for Fake by Orson Welles
- The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles
- Citizen Kane by Orson Welles
- House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
- Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Necronomicon, created by H.P. Lovecraft
- Emigrants by W. G. Sebald
- Museum of Jurassic Technology
- The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas
- Dungeons and Dragons by Gary Gygax
- Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton and the 1971 film.
- Most role-playing games
- Memoirs of Hadrian by Maurgeritte Yourcenair
- I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Watchmen by Alan Moore
False Documents in Theory
- Boggs by Lawrence Weschler
- Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler
- Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard
Hoaxes (are they art or not?):
- "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"
by Alan Sokal, Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text). See Sokal Affair
- "The endochronic properties of resublimated thiotimoline", Isaac Asimov.
- Ova Prima
- Salamander letter
Sources: or, False Documents as a field of study
False documents were recently the topic of a graduate level seminar in the humanities at the University of Michigan. The seminar was taught by Professor Eileen Pollack. While the form has existed for at least two hundred years, focused study is fairly recent.