I have never really been hoaxed. At least, I don’t think so. I suppose there was Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. And there was the time when my grade 6 teacher told us he had won the lottery and would split his winnings with us. He let that doozy ferment in our ten-year-old brains over morning prayers and “O Canada,” before reminding us it was April 1. More recently, there was the alleged Jussie Smollett assault, a saga I half-heartedly followed on the evening news as my partner and I chopped vegetables. Ditto the Balloon Boy. And, admittedly, I once retweeted a hard-to-believe but credible-seeming Esquire article about an ultra-exclusive restaurant that uses human breast milk in its signature custard. Alas, victim to another April Fool’s prank.
But none of this resembles what Heather Jessup probes in This Is Not a Hoax. Neither Santa nor the Balloon Boy shifted my compass significantly or “woke” me up in any grand, epistemological sense. For me, April Fool’s has never revealed some consequential “glitch in the system.” But such are the effects Jessup credits to the high fakery she describes.
This Is Not a Hoax does not broadly survey artful deceptions. Rather, it focuses on six contemporary artists and writers: Iris Häussler, Brian Jungen, Jeff Wall, Rebecca Belmore, Erín Moure, and David Solway. Each of these “little disrupters” challenge “assumptions about Canadian culture and aim to test individual and institutional authority.” By interrogating her own experiences, Jessup offers an “exploration of the literatures and landscapes that have helped confuse, rile, inspire, and unsettle me in my knowledge of the literature, history, culture, language, and art of the places I have called home.” And, while anecdotal, the book — stemming from the author’s doctoral studies — is extensively researched.
The project opens with a compressed overview of hoaxes and the cultural figure of the trickster. Jessup considers various formulations of what a hoax is and what it does, but she resists some rigid definition with which to measure and sort deceptions. Instead, she opts for a “non-taxonomical” strategy — an approach that invites readers to “revel in the particularities of each hoax.” Borrowing from the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, she declares that “hoaxes form a family,” in which they share traits but remain distinct. She also draws from the philosopher Mark Kingwell, who has broadly defined a hoax as “a gag, a goof, a blindfold; a spoof, a jape, a deceit; deliberate equivocation; fakery, impersonation, infiltration.” Some of Jessup’s creative treacheries feel conventionally hoaxier than others, though they all share at least some genetic material.
Jessup begins with an experience that “changed” her. In June 2007, during Frank Gehry’s redevelopment of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the papers of Henry Whyte came into the museum’s possession. Whyte was once a butler at the Grange, the grand Georgian manor that was originally built for the aristocratic Boulton family and that now forms part of the AGO. Within Whyte’s notes, archivists found curious references to handmade objects, which the butler described as “waxen globules,” hidden around the house by a seventeen-year-old Irish maid named Mary O’Shea, whom he referred to as “Amber.” Searching the spaces Whyte had identified, the museum found a number of globes made from candle drippings and clay, along with dried flowers, shards of china, blood, and a lock of hair. Officials called in specialists who began a larger excavation of the Grange’s walls and floors, uncovering even more.
While excavations were under way, the AGO offered public tours of the site. The findings had caused a minor sensation, and between November 2008 and June 2010, more than 16,000 visitors toured the building. They departed with a letter from the head archaeologist, which detailed the team’s operations. But midway through, the letter took a startling turn: the whole thing was an elaborate fiction perpetrated by the artist Iris Häussler. Jessup visited the Grange five more times, she says, just to better understand the architecture of the dupe.
What made Häussler’s hoax, which she titled He Named Her Amber, so successful? Jessup examines how the exhibition tendered and violated contracts among its principal players — the artist, museum, and audience — and argues these infractions gave the work its potency. Visitors left the museum questioning the authority of the cultural institutions charged with telling our histories, and questioning whose histories, exactly, they tell in the first place. The deception was not malicious but productive, waking us from an “intellectual slumber.” The case suggests that, contrary to popular wisdom in this era of fake news, not all fakeries need be flagged, reported, and removed as poisonous. Some — an artful few — may in fact be fruitful.
This Is Not a Hoax is at its best when we get a sense of Jessup’s own rush of adrenaline as she discovers things aren’t exactly what they seem. Unfortunately, for a book that defines its project by the author’s own experiences, these embodied, more white-knuckled accounts are few. How did Brian Jungen’s Wall Drawings affect Jessup, for example, when she learned they were not of the artist’s own devising but images solicited from the public based on their interpretations of the terms “Indian” and “Indian art”? Did any members of the canvassed public ever see their submissions drawn or carved outsize on the gallery wall? And what did that do to them? (There were multiple hoodwinkings at work in that episode.) Such questions are left unanswered here.
The West Coast artist’s project, which effectively visualized local stereotypes, is included in a chapter — alongside a photo by Jeff Wall and two performances by Rebecca Belmore — on artworks that slyly raise questions about Canada’s colonial legacy. Though the tellings may lack the detailed depth that lets readers feel each project’s distinct hoaxiness, this section carries a separate appreciable charge, as it raises higher the corrective and revelatory potential of such trickery. It closes by considering a pair of Belmore performances that suggest the greatest deception has actually taken place within our collective sense of history. The stakes are higher such that a later essay — it’s about Moure’s and Solway’s writing authored by their invented personas, Elisa Sampedrín and Andreas Karavis, respectively, and it culminates in an exhortation for better public funding for translations — feels like a deceleration.
This Is Not a Hoax concludes with a meditation inspired by another Wall photograph, The Stumbling Block. In it, a man dressed something like a hockey goalie stretches across a sidewalk, creating an obstacle for passersby. Those who’ve tripped over him appear to have been struck by moments of deep reflection. It’s an apt metaphor for the works Jessup experiences: “A disruption of our pretences of knowing, of solid fact, of assumption.” Indeed, a productive hoax is not merely a ruse — nor is it April Fool’s–flavoured clickbait. It’s a way of tripping, falling head first, and then dusting oneself off to see the world more truly.