Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Joe Bochynski’s fake archaeology challenges viewers to figure out what’s believable and what’s not.
Joe Bochynski often canvasses construction sites. He scopes out the rubble in pursuit of chunks that look dusty or scraped up, then stuffs the fragments into a hulking bag with reinforced seams. It’s important that the pieces have the patina of age: that’s key to the deception.
Bochynski, an artist, masquerades as the director of the fictitious NYC Department of Archaeology (DoA). He uses the fragments as bases for mosaics, which he then pairs with records professing that they’re objects unearthed from dig sites around the city.
When he held stints in museums, Bochynski was fascinated by the presentation of information. Now, he manipulates that presentation: His art asks what history—and trustworthiness—look like in a world of “alternative facts.” When he displayed his work at a recent open studios event, he assumed the posture of an archeologist or archivist from DoA, his made-up department. He might point to one of his creations and say, “Oh, this piece is 3,000 years old.” Then he’d stand back and wait for it to click. Some viewers seemed to be in on the joke right away, he says; others initially took it at face value.
That’s not entirely surprising. At first glance, his posters have all the trappings of authority: They’re annotated with truncated accession numbers, historical details, and maps pointing to the site where the objects were allegedly exhumed. But they also nudge viewers—cleverly, and with a wink—to brush off those critical thinking skills that may have atrophied a bit. It might take a few beats to realize that it’s exceedingly unlikely that someone turned over a mosaic fragment from 550 CE beneath a basketball court along the West Side Highway.
Many viewers would have no reason to doubt the history that a museum label recites. “You’re assuming that what you’re presented with is in fact the truth,” Bochynski says. The act of enshrining something in an institution confers a sense of legitimacy to it, earned or not. In the era of finger-wagging accusations of fake news and top-down censorship of information about topics such as climate change, teasing fact from fiction in public institutions is a particularly relevant exercise.
But beyond the current political climate, Bochynski’s work emerges out of a long history of institutional critique, in which artists take aim at assumptions that museums and galleries are inherently objective, or nuanced in their analysis. Entire histories have been blotted out from many mainstream collections; others adhere a shiny veneer to histories that are murky. Institutional critiques poke and prod, trying to make viewers and administrators aware of their blind spots.
Writing in the New Republic earlier this month, Josephine Livingstone examined the crucial work of conservators, who act as ballasts for ephemeral objects—pamphlets, protest posters, “real” versions of Bochynski’s fragments—that testify to who we are and what we believe. This type of conservation is a stabilizing force. The acid-free papers and labeling systems organizing these collections, Livingstone wrote, are components of a “delicate life support system dedicated to holding the material past in stasis.” That’s the work that a period room does, too—inviting a viewer to step into a world so visibly separate from our familiar surroundings.
Bochynski’s work, which will be on view in a group show at the Black & White Gallery in Brooklyn this summer, does something different. By promising to showcase things plucked from just beneath the surface of well-trod blocks, it asks us to take stock of what we really know about the places we pass every day; it’s a demand of the (fabricated) past on the present, and vice versa.
The mosaic fragments include imagery that recurs over a long period of time, highlighting communities that have all but vanished from the contemporary landscape of the city. In some of the works, Bochynski’s falsified documents offer a primer about habitués who were edged out from the alleged excavation site. One hand shape is fashioned after Rodin’s work, and placed in the former Little France, an enclave that bustled near modern-day Soho in the late 1800s. Another emphasizes bird imagery associated with Ghanian communities in the Bronx. Microcultures can fade away in a generation or two, Bochynski tells me. His faux archeology project might not excavate “real” artifacts, but it does resurface stories and collective memories that might otherwise remain buried from view.
His fake department also kindles wonderment about the past—even the not-quite-totally-real past. “Our department is keenly interested in the dense, layered human story of our city,” he writes in a pamphlet displayed with the mosaic works. “Think about all the people and events that have passed through the very spot you stand in today.”
A city’s history is stacked in layers, and traces of it have a habit of remaining in surprising places. Even banal spaces or objects have history’s fingerprints smudged onto their surface, and Bochynski finds that delightful. He mentions the example of a studio space that was a factory in its former life—he saw impressions on the floor and wondered whether workers’ feet wore the surface smooth, or if heavy machinery scuffed it. “You move through the world, and those marks are all over the place,” Bochynski says. “That’s kind of magical.”