Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tahir Shah, Meet Bruce High Quality

This is one of those crossover posts that ought to be worked out in detail but almost certainly will never be properly upgraded. I had originally thought to post it to my joculum.livejournal blog, where the readership is more familiar with the context. But the readers of Counterforces will know more about the art issues.

There have been a growing number of crossover fictions gaining popularity in the artworld in recent years. An artist was invented and memorialized in a UK-published biography with illustrations, with both artist and artworks a complete fiction (the paintings did actually exist, though in the era of digital reproduction this was no longer an absolute necessity). This came a bit after a feature story in, I think, Esquire that profiled an unaccountably unrecognized younger actress who was unrecognized because Esquire had made her up. These exercises in documentary fictions have since been succeeded by a variety of made-up artists, though one needs to go back to Smile magazine and Karen Eliot and many other precursors to do this properly. Claire Fontaine and the Bruce High Quality Foundation are examples of currently popular artworld collectives using the concept of the fictionalized biography as a vehicle for collaborative endeavors (so it would be particularly appropriate to revisit the Karen Eliot model, but life is short).

Now, it so happens that the father of writer Tahir Shah engaged in a certain number of collaborative fictions of his own over the years, involving made-up characters. He used some of them as a test for would-be devotees of his thought: one anthology of writings was handed to an academic in America for publication, and when the academic published the entire collection verbatim, it was reportedly pointed out to him that the essays were internally contradictory, and that anyone taking all of them at face value was failing to absorb the specific lessons that were the whole point of the materials' overt content. The volume appeared under a different title in a much-diminished mass-market version later on, and there is still some question as to the intent behind what was included and omitted from that rendition.

So it comes as less than a complete surprise that earlier this year Tahir Shah (who is best known most recently for The Caliph's House,, which has done for Casablanca what Peter Mayle did for Provence) announced that he was in the midst of writing a novel based on the life of the forgotten Edwardian adventurer Hannibal Fogg, under the working title Hannibal Fogg and the Supreme Secret of Man.

Well, actually, the novel-in-progress came as a surprise. What was ultimately less surprising was that Hannibal Fogg proved to be even more elusive a character than the website of the Hannibal Fogg Society promised. Within a very short time indeed, researchers had determined that this individual whose works were supposedly suppressed for political reasons (though the Society had recovered many and recently begun to post them online) appeared to be a complete fiction inserted into online discourse only a matter of weeks earlier. Trails of site registrations and Wikipedia entries appeared to lead back to names associated with Tahir Shah.

Now, anyone familiar with the biographies of Percy Fawcett and Roger Casement, among others, could perceive a suspicious similarity between elements of Fogg's story and theirs. And of course, the echo of the name of Jules Verne's Phineas Fogg seemed a bit too good to be true. The titles of Fogg's suppressed books seemed to smell of a send-up, and Fogg's prose style in the online extracts seemed a trifle anomalous for someone writing a century ago. So it isn't surprising that searchers were on the case immediately.

What's curious and yet to be determined is where to place this incident in the realm of online hoaxes (which the evidence thus far—assuming we can take the evidence at face value—appears to suggest that it is).

People reading the texts on the site of the Bruce High Quality Foundation with its slogan "Professional Challenges. Amateur Solutions." do not take the foundation's declarations at face value. It is understood that artists' collectives have intentions and uses of online resources that do not coincide with the goals of historical research. But the BHQF has gone out of its way to make itself ineligible for a Wikipedia entry (by declaring that all the media reports have "misrepresented" it and by producing fact-subverting reportage), rather than inserting a fictional Wikipedia biography of the late sculptor Bruce High Quality.

So is Tahir Shah following in his footsteps of his trickster father or creating a less successful version of this young collective that has now found its way into the 2010 Whitney Biennial (BHQF's success thus proving that ridicule of artworld pretensions is sometimes as much of a path to fame as the more standard career-building route is)?

Ought we to be discussing Tahir Shah's literary gambit in the context of hoaxes, history of religions, or interdisciplinary artmaking? You tell me.


samayika said...

Thanks. Are you aware of any published sources discussing the events around the earlier anthology, as described in your post? Presumably the anthology is "The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West: An Anthology of New Writings by and about Idries Shah", published in 1972 by the "Institute for Research on the Dissemination of Human Knowledge" and then later that year by Keysign Press.

littlejoke said...

Ah, the experiment worked. But I fear I have only the second- and third-hand reports regarding the anthology and the motives involved in its publication:

And this dissipation into rumors surrounding seemingly impenetrable mystery was one reason I preferred to paraphrase so obliquely, though I had other reasons also.

samayika said...

Pity. I thought you might have read some published sources I hadn't come across yet (I'm J'466 in the caravansarai group, and on WP.)

There is a little more background in James Moore's paper: An interpretation similar to yours has been put forward by the religious scholar, Andrew Rawlinson: Cheers, J.

samayika said...

A start has been made. Bruce High Quality Foundation in Wikipedia:

littlejoke said...

Thanks for the references...I think I may have read the Moore essay before but wasn't aware of the Rawlinson book.

I prefer not to go into the question here, but as I implied, I was fascinated to see that grossly overstating the available evidence (rather than presenting it as speculation) plus setting it in an unfamiliar context was sufficient to begin a line of conversation...which is what trickster figures do, of course, in world religions. (Con men do likewise, but by their fruits shall you know them. Except when you wonder if the trees bear fruit irrespective of the motives of the planter.)

So in a sense I was testing a hypothesis...and am not surprised that the Bruce High Quality Foundation couldn't keep itself out of Wikipedia, because validation by the Whitney Biennial trumps efforts to subvert Wikipedia's requirements for inclusion.

samayika said...

As for the Bruce High Quality Foundation arriving in Wikipedia, you rather than the Biennial may take credit for that, as I wrote the article in direct response to your comments here. :) With any luck, they'll appear on the WP front page in a few days; I've nominated the article for the Did You Know ... box. Agree with you about the fruits. Happy Holidays, J.

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Anonymous said...

Only Tahir Shah wasn't the hoaxer - Barnard Knox is white, English, in his early thirties and has never written a book about explorers...

Anonymous said...

Do you have no sense of humour? No sense of imagination? No sense of adventure?

People are getting more and more creative these days, inventing tales and enigmas to go along with novels or other forms of art.

Why get angry at this? I admire it! It's a creative way to create a buzz around an event or a work of art.'s not the end of the world when someone invents something that isn't true and then posts it online. Plus, you can give yourself a medal for discovering them and ratting them out and stroke your ego in the process.