Fakeness has long been associated with inferiority. Fake Rolexes that break in two weeks, plastic Christmas trees, leaky silicone breasts that cause cancer, imitation caviar. Even the ancient Greeks talked about the phenomenon of fakeness. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes human beings as being chained in a cave and watching shadows on the wall, without realizing that they are ‘only’ representations.
Today, the walls of Plato’s cave are so full of beamers, disco balls, plasma screens and halogen spotlights that we don’t even see the shadows on the wall. A city child washes her hair with pine–scented shampoo. Walking in the forest with her father one day, she says, “Daddy, the woods smell like shampoo.” Do we still have genuine experiences at all, or do we live in a world of make–believe?
Modern thinkers agree that because of the layeredness of simulations in our society, we can no longer recognise reality. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord explains how everything we once experienced directly has been replaced in our contemporary world by representations. Another Frenchman, Jean Baudrillard, argues that we live in a world in which simulations and imitations of reality have become more real than reality itself. He calls this condition “hyperreality”: the authentic fake.
In summer we ski indoors; in winter we spray snow on the slopes. Plastic surgeons sculpt flesh to match retouched photographs in glossy magazines. People drink sports drinks with nonexistent flavours like “wild ice zest berry”. We wage war on video screens. Birds mimic mobile–phone ringtones.
You certainly cannot believe everything you see. At the same time, images still count as the ultimate evidence. Did we really land on the moon? Are you sure? How did it happen? Or was it perhaps a feat of Hollywood magic? Are we sure there is no Loch Ness Monster? After all, human beings are extremely visual animals. From cave paintings to computers, images have helped us to describe, analyze and organize the world around us. We determine what’s “real” not just individually but, above all, collectively, socially and culturally.
Images are often realer than real. Today, media production has expanded by such leaps and bounds that simulations are often more influential, satisfying and meaningful than the things they simulate. We consume illusions. Images have become part of the cycle in which meanings are determined. They have bearing on our economy, our judgments and our identities. Without images: no reality.
A disturbing thought, or old news? In contrast to Plato, his pupil Aristotle believed imitation was a natural part of life. Reality reaches us through imitation (Aristotle calls it mimesis): this is how we come to know the world. Plants and animals too, use disguises and misleading appearances to improve their chances of survival (think of the walking stick, an insect that looks like a twig). Real or fake? Realer than real? Faker than fake? You be the judge. It often depends on your frame of reference.
By Koert van Mensvoort, published in the FAKE FOR REAL MEMORY GAME, ISBN 978-90-63-69-177-6, All-Media / BIS 2008