Given that the truth is often stranger than fiction, it’s no wonder that the opening sequence of Fargo and its “This is a True Story” framing worked so well.  In her new book, When Fact is Fiction, Documentary Art in the Post-Truth Era, Nele Wynants looks at a world where fact and fiction don’t have to be opposites.

Lies, photo: Charlotte Lybeer

In 2016, “post-truth” was selected as word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary. This had everything to do with the British referendum on EU membership and the US presidential elections. In both events, objective facts proved less important than emotion-driven public opinion. Analysts claim that we are living in a “post-truth era” in which facts, the truth, and reality are increasingly undermined, while fiction is given a status upgrade.  Though journalists do their utmost to uphold the high standards of objectivity that come with their profession by distinguishing fake news from carefully researched information, social media is teeming with alternative facts, often spread by big data companies. The relationship between fact and fiction, truth and lie, has become an increasingly tense one with little space for nuance.

Barry, photo: Charlotte Lybeer

This also affects the role and status of fiction, as something untrustworthy, something to distrust.  Yet fiction is the domain of the writer and the artist, not of the journalist or the politician. Not that fiction has nothing to do with truth and reality. Quite the contrary. “A writer lies the truth,” Dutch author Simon Carmiggelt wrote. We know that a story arranges facts into a narrative, sometimes embellishing and reshuffling them. Fiction is honest in that it doesn’t claim to be telling the truth. But even if fiction belongs to the imaginative realm, that doesn’t mean that stories are inherently untrue. Perhaps stories reveal a deeper truth about the world in which we live than statistics or measurable facts. Fiction can open up the world, clarify it, but also question it. Or offer a different perspective. In addition, fiction hints at a wide range of possibilities. It allows us to think up and imagine other realities, explore new perspectives on the future, or represent something that is hard or even impossible to represent otherwise. Thus, fiction pulls us into the world of the possible, the thinkable, the speculative, which – not coincidentally – also helps some sciences in formulating hypotheses and assumptions, thinking out of the box and exploring new territories.

We need to reclaim fiction as a powerful artistic tool to reflect on reality, to reveal the complexity of our reality, and even have an impact on it.  The power of a text, an image, or a work of art may lie precisely in its presentation of a worldview that closely corresponds to our experience of reality, even though we know full well that its empirical basis is dubious or fictional.

Gun Room, photo: Charlotte Lybeer

The reader’s or viewer’s double consciousness is an inherent quality of the aesthetic experience. We can be deeply moved by something we know to be ‘just’ fiction. What’s more, the framework of fiction allows us to immerse ourselves in a piece of fiction without losing our ability to critically assess the world it evokes.

In addition, something may well be both fact and fiction at the same time. “Fact can be fiction and fiction fact,” wrote philosopher of art, Kendall Walton.  His idea is centred on the idea that the term “fictional” can mean “true in the appropriate game of make-believe” or in the fictional world of representation.  According to Walton, the representational arts can be considered ‘props’ that stimulate specific imaginations, in the way that kids’ toys (like dolls and teddy bears) serve as props in the fantasy world of children. Following the same logic, art evokes fictional truths. Fact and fiction coincide in this game of make-believe, meaning that a fictional story can be composed entirely of empirical truths.

Anti-pollution Mask, photo: Charlotte Lybeer

This leaves us with much to consider: What might be the role of fiction at a time when fake news, alternative facts, and infotainment undermine the integrity of politics and the media? What is the place of the imagination in how we understand and create the reality around us? What is the notion of truth that underlies this work?

And fiction can be a useful instrument for imagining other, possible, future worlds and, hence, how it can affect the world today. This means entering the realm of speculative fiction, often regarded as a synonym for, or a subgenre of science fiction. These artists are not looking for the actual or the factual, but for the possible, for what is thinkable or imaginable. After all, artists are in a privileged position to explore uncharted territories. Fiction and the imagination allow them to develop and try out new possibilities; not only conceptually – they draw up imaginary maps, make fictional sketches, develop alternative theories – but also in the form of imaginary perspectives that materialize into prototypes.

Plant Cage, photo: Charlotte Lybeer

If we want to steer clear of a future dictated by high-tech developers in Silicon Valley – a consumable futurism à la Elon Musk, that is – the authors argue that the question becomes: which future do we want to see ‘performed’?

Fiction, imagination and creativity are not only qualities of an artist. Even solid scientists must have a visionary spirit and be able to “think the impossible” in order to be able to push the limits of our knowledge of reality. No hypothesis without imagination, no laboratory experiments without fictitious assumptions about reality. In short, fiction precedes facts. Art and science, but also fact and fiction are therefore not opposites. They are – also in the scientific realm – closely related.

Because stories can represent worlds that we don’t know yet.

Airsoft players, photo: Charlotte Lybeer

Extracts from the introduction to When Fact is Fiction, Documentary Art in the Post-Truth Era, edited by Nele Wynants, published by Valiz, 2020,

This article appeared in DAM78. Order your personal copy.