an article on the museum based on an interview with the founder

Looting Gallery

Katherine Nelson

Antoinette LaFarge, founder of the Museum of Forgery, has some unusual ideas about the value of art. The exhibits in the Museum of Forgery, a center for seemingly illegal, or at least unauthorized, artistic activity, might perplex some visitors. A generic Duchamp? A posthumous Mondrian? Instructions for a do-it-yourself forgery? Antoinette LaFarge, founder of the museum, is one of several artists, scholars, and critics who have examined notions of authorship and originality. Even though many have explored these highly theoretical concepts, such ideas continue to befuddle us, specifically on a practical and economic level. Today, with thousands of digital reproduction methods available at the push of a button, with the flow of visual information running like a river through our TVs and desktop computers, how can we figure out who gets credit for what? How can we protect our interests, our income, and artwork? Antoinette LaFarge may have an answer.

The Museum of Forgery is not, and has never been, housed in a permanent site. Although it has been around for 15 years, the museum has remained a nomadic institution that eventually found its way onto the Internet. It now resides on a server at the University of California, Irvine. Says LaFarge, "It was really never intended to be embodied in a building because the museum itself should be a false front. That it was not what people expected when they heard the word museum was very important to me. And that it should eventually end up on the Web as a completely virtual institution dealing in digital copies just had a rightness."

LaFarge first began her exploration of the inauthentic while living in Los Angeles in the mid-80s, but it wasn't until the arrival of the Internet that she found the most appropriate platform for her Museum project. In L.A. her work employed photography, mixed-media, and print and much of it can be found today in the Museum. Under the influence of artists like Sherrie Levine, LaFarge questioned why certain objects become culturally validated as real or valuable, and, conversely, how others become worthless and disappear from public consciousness. "There were many twisted forms of logic involved in the discussion of forgery," she explains, "that shed more light on art, as it were, from the back door." About this time LaFarge discovered the newly proliferating personal computer and something, so to speak, clicked. The artist's theoretical ideas and affection for technology came together in what seemed like a perfect fit, a medium that embodied her vision. "In computers there is a lack of distinction between copies and originals," she explains. "Computers pointed to a world were some of these definitions were going to start melting and reforming under the pressure of the way in which these machines see the world."

When visitors enter the MoF, they may browse several curatorial departments. True to the nature of the Web, most of these departments are interactive and visitors can download forgeries, do their own, and archive their attempts. There is an art burial ground ("The Potter's Field"), a free burial ground for art that, as the copy reads, "is too impoverished or friendless to be entombed in a museum." Another section offers enough "fine arts" filter plug-ins to delight any Photoshop fanatic. ("With the Hukusaize Plug-In," the promo copy enthuses, "turn any image into a harmonious abstraction based on the compositions of the master Japanese printmaker Hokusai!"). Another attraction at the MoF is "Smothered Art," where visitors can select from a variety of horrific art disposal techniques that vaguely resemble medieval torture methods. For example, there is "Paring/Skinning," "Beating," "Starvation," and "Chaining." (My favorite, perhaps a more modern method, is death by "Papier-Mache.") Here users are encouraged to explore the destructive side of forgery and question their ingrained cultural tendencies to save and preserve. Proclaiming a work a "forgery" causes it to be "removed from art," explains LaFarge. It is devalued and therefore, in society's eyes, worthless. "We tend to think of art as something that should be preserved and if you destroy it, it's tantamount to Nazi book burning. But looking at this from the other direction, it brings up the question of how and when art might be destroyed and, above all, could that be an interesting and even productive thing to do?" In the "Smothered Art" project, each option produces ashes or other residue. With this project, LaFarge implies that trashing a work of art can actually be a positive act of transformation, reevaluation, and liberation. It's impossible, she insists, to make things vanish entirely.

Another project sponsored by the MoF is its ongoing "Excessioning" program. "Excessioning" involves, not merely the production of copies of existing artworks, but the addition of "new" works to the repertoires of established artists. The "Shark's Pocket," for example, an artwork by LaFarge displayed in the Museum's virtual gallery, is made of "genuine faux sealskin" and labeled a "duchamp." With this work LaFarge proclaims the art of Duchamp is not original, but instead, as Kevin Kelly, in his 1994 book Out of Control, called it, a "library of form." (A claim to which Duchamp himself might not have been so averse.) The usual assumption is that every artist's style is original. In almost every other discipline, notes LaFarge, the absence of artistic originality, more specifically expanding on and updating the theories of predecessors, is valued and encouraged. "Were the pioneers, the first vacuum, the first TV, really the best and most interesting exemplars? Unlike inventors and scientists, why are artists not encouraged to explore and build upon other artists' libraries of form?" LaFarge's Excessioning projects also offer a commercial critique. They demonstrate that an artist's name--Warhol, Stella, Johns--may be more meaningful than the work itself. Many successful brand names have lost their particular identity and seeped into our vocabulary as generic nouns, like band-aid, for example, or xerox. In a commercial society, no one can escape this appropriation of language, and even artists and their work are not exempt. Thus LaFarge employs a lower-case d in the naming of her generic duchamp.

The Excessioning projects also explore the economics of art. Created by duchamp and not Duchamp, a work is no longer the property of a specific individual or estate. To our society, it remains unclear quite what to make of the work of an artist who builds on another artist's library of form, specifically because of economic considerations. "The Excessioning projects reflect on the property nature of art," says LaFarge. "Who controls the creation of the work, the ownership, and the naming, and who gets the money?" Laws have attempted to help define values of copies and reproductions, of photographic negatives in particular, but the area still remains legalistically cloudy. In order for a photographic print to be valuable, for example, it must be produced "close to the aesthetic moment." Yet, when digital information travels along fiber optic cables at the speed of sound, it seems unlikely that this definition will help us in paying the artist of the 21st century.

To what models can we look to provide insight into rethinking the future identity of the artist, economically and otherwise? LaFarge emphasizes that the Internet itself holds many of the keys. She looks forward to a time when our culture's material obsession, where the cars and clothes that define our identity, will be de-emphasized and replaced with a sense of community. People will begin to spend less money on objects and more money on participating in community and experience-oriented activities: visiting Web sites, participating in games and chat rooms. "On the Internet, what someone is doing with their time becomes more important than just being able to sell someone an object," she explains. "So instead of purchasing objects, I think people will pay instead to become participants and, in essence, to be members of something." LaFarge also sees a reevaluation of the personality and the production methods of the artist. This new artist will have a fresh relationship to space, due to the ephemeral nature of the Internet, and will be relieved of creating the static, solid structures found in museums. "The whole approach has been to make large expensive objects, like having large museums encouraged people to build bigger paintings," she says. "The whole history of heroic art is very significantly a child of the exhibition space and not just because some artists were more heroic than others."

If the artist of the 21st century is hard to imagine, he or she is even harder to pay. Bylines, credits, titles, a face or talent that is easily recognized, not only mean success, but also cold hard cash. Not only does accepting appropriation and forgery as an important part of the act of creation go against a strong tradition of individualism, it's just simply difficult to implement on an economic level. "It's near-forgeries that become bothersome because of their commercial implications," claims LaFarge. "When it comes to the world of fakes, forgeries, and copies, our looking and our value judgement is determined by preset ideas of who gets money for what." LaFarge's answer to this confusion is that designers and artists should be paid for first-time usage and then relinquish all other controls over their artwork. The result of this new method would open up immeasurable amounts of useful information, not just for the good of society, but because there will be no other way to control the flood of information. Says LaFarge, "I see a world where artists essentially get paid once because it's just too hard to control the distribution of their work. And in this environment perhaps artists wouldn't try to cling to their work so much." LaFarge sees positive repercussions to this system of payment. She feels that it places less emphasis on the material and commercial object and more emphasis on the human being: the artist is reimbursed and the work is then immediately in the public domain, easily and readily accessed by all. "If you pay an artist once," says LaFarge, "it's a way to place more value on the individual rather than the work."

The most complete critique of modernism may very well be realized in digital media and the Internet, a medium that offers absolutely no distinction between original and copy. The computer and the Internet, as LaFarge says, force us to think differently. The Museum of Forgery is an effort to force us reevaluate to our relationship to the "original." "To turn it upside down," says LaFarge, "and see if it still works." Surprisingly, the "almost-but-not-quite" might actually offer us new ways to think about our idols and ourselves. LaFarge encourages us to take a second look. To walk in through the back door.

1998 Katherine Nelson