; ; ; 20 Mar 2017

Alternative Histories

By Madeline Fennell

‘A created thing is never invented and it is never true: it is always and ever itself.’ (Federico Fellini).

How important is the history (and the truth of this history) of any object?

The majority of people reading this (according to statistics) will at some point have invented a part of their own history. That decision was theirs and the repercussions will be theirs to explain or wriggle out of. But what about when a history relates to less personal aspects of life such as the things we own, the things we make and the things we use to position ourselves in society? Questions of truth and authenticity have often been proposed in regard to art and the majority of us have heard of fakes and forgeries. The BBC has made 5 series of Fake or Fortune, but is this perpetuating the myth that beauty and value lies in truth or just a prime time dip into culture with Fiona Bruce?

Alternative Histories Installation, A Toolkit For Provocative Practice 2017

For the recent ‘A Toolkit for Provocative Practice’ exhibition, myself and three other students created a piece of work called Alternative Histories. The idea was to get the audience thinking about the stories behind some of the objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum; where had they come from and why they had been collected. Using a framework based loosely on that of the Exquisite Corpse game, we encouraged gallery visitors to create new museum labels (new histories) for objects that are in the V&A collections.

Blank ‘Museum’ Label as part of Alternative Histories Installation

 The objects were selected from those used by the History of Design first year students for their Autumn essays, written to show in depth understanding of a chosen artefact; its agency, audience and significance, and finding this understanding through historical research. The ‘truths’ were selected from the V&A archives; the initials and the character descriptions are of people that have given to the museum, as are the means of acquisition. All of the facts used were ‘correct’ but the chances of selecting one for its correct object were tiny. 

Completed new ‘histories’ – Alternative Histories Installation

This process raised a number of questions for our methodologies: is historical truth important? Does knowing the truth make the object any more beautiful or useful? Is your truth the same as my truth? If an object’s agency is reliant on its history, what does the epoch of post-truth and fake news mean for historical design practice? Or can an object gain greater agency through an alternative history?

Sunday Sport

‘Fake News’ is a fashionable term now but we’ve previously been heavily acquainted with ‘selective memory’, ‘an unidentified source’, and favourable (or unfavourable) editing, so what if anything has changed? Embellishment and exaggeration have been used throughout history to build reputations and intimidate others. More modern tools may include Photoshop, selective amnesia and creative filtering but essentially they are to the same effect; focusing viewer attention on what the author wants them to see, not necessarily what is there. The National Enquirer and Sunday Sport had the height of their popularity in the 1990s. These publications both dealt with speculation and supposition and used ‘anonymous insider information’ and ‘leaked memos’ to create believable fiction. However, the readers were on the whole were aware of this.

 In November 2016, The Guardian reported that Oxford Dictionaries had declared “post-truth” to be its International Word of the Year. Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors estimated that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to 2015. If the truth of the present is not being accurately reported and recorded, how are we supposed to create an honest archive to use in the future?

So, back to the original question; how important is the history of object, and the significance that this history is true? Well, to paraphrase Paloma Faith that depends; do you want the truth or something beautiful?

A Toolkit For Provocative Practice 2017 poster

Kornet, Allison. The Truth About Lying, Deception is rampant (May 1997)
Flood, Alison. Post fact named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries Alison Flood, The Guardian (15/11/2016) www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/15/post-truth-named-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries
Do you want the truth or something beautiful? Palma Faith. 2009

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