SPIN Publication – Ruination is a Form of Time Travel

August 9, 2021

SPIN is delighted to share 2021 SPIN fellow, James Mansfield‘s latest publication ‘Ruination is a Form of Time Travel‘.

As part of his SPIN fellowship, James wrote this article which introduces some uses of fiction in contemporary art practice, and then links these methods to his own work. With a focus on both secrecy and ignorance, James has undertaken a speculative investigation into a restricted military area in the south of Scotland and used his notes and photographs to create a publication, Ruination is a Form of Time Travel. The link to view or download Ruination is a Form of Time Travel is here.


Inventing or Deceiving? The use of fictions in contemporary art


(I) From Parafictions to Fictioning


What do we need to know in order to appreciate a work of art? We can rely on an exhibition catalogue or a wall text, or perhaps listen to a curator’s talk. These may all prove useful for contemplating what is obviously art; that might be a series of oil paintings, or perhaps a video installation. We can also relate via our knowledge of previous exhibitions or other means of gleaning art history.


But what happens when events conspire to remove the label of ‘art gallery’ or ‘art exhibition’ and we experience something which doesn’t initially seem to be art yet upon detailed inspection bears many of the same characteristics? Would we feel surprised or deceived if we discovered a museum had presented an exhibition which turned out to be in many ways, a work of fiction?


In response to such occurrences, art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty has proposed the concept of a ‘parafiction’ which she defines as ‘related to but not quite a member of the category of fiction…in parafiction real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived’.[1] The use of parafiction in contemporary art is considered further by Heather Jessup in her book This is not a Hoax, where she analyses the work of Canadian artist Iris Haussler.[2] In 2008, Haussler created an artwork at the Grange, a historical house museum which is part of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Visitors experienced a guided tour of the house, which revealed the discovery of a series of curious wax artefacts found on site as part of an archaeological investigation. The narrative given by the tour guide explained these pieces of wax had been hidden around the house in the 1830s by one of the housemaids, Mary O’Shea, and each of them contained a personal memento, the analysis of which provided a new insight into the life of those who worked there at that time.


Visitors were not initially told that the installation and its interpretations were a work of art rather than the historical displays usually encountered in such spaces. This is a crucial element, as the setting of the artwork provides a plausible cover of a history that is a work of the artist’s imagination. Jessup concludes that while there is an element of trickery on Haussler’s part, it is acceptable as in doing so she animates, enlivens and shakes our idea of history, and makes the viewer question how perceptions of the past are created.[3]


The parafictional story of Mary O’Shea is an example of the history which was not recorded – particularly in the context of the historic house museum, where the focus has (until very recently) been on the lives of the ‘upstairs’, their former owners, rather than ‘downstairs’. Museum collections more widely also represent this bias, with an abundance of artefacts demonstrating ‘elite taste’ in forms from paintings to porcelain. Parafictional art is therefore able to ‘perform’ a different version of the past, one which might not have been formally recorded, yet can provide relatable experiences from the viewpoint of those excluded from traditional accounts of history. Empirical historical research cannot do this – there will always be limits to what evidence the archive or archaeological site can provide, and thus art (alongside other forms of creative practice) can be a useful means of challenging and expanding our understanding of the past.



(II) The fictional basis of my art practice and research


That the Museum can be a place of ambiguous knowledge, rather than concrete facts ha

s long been a concern within my own art practice, which uses a variety of fictional devices as a mode of research and enquiry. Through my own Museum of Imaginative Knowledge[4], I have questioned the basis of the museum or gallery as a static container of ‘appropriate’ art and wonder what other possibilities may exist. I have done this through exhibitions and performance lectures as my alter ego Dr James Lattin, examining phenomena such as lay-bys, vanishing islands and the experience of living inside museums. At the heart of all of this is a deep interest in the changing nature of knowledge. I have long wondered about the social and cultural factors which authorise knowledge at any given point, and how such possible knowledge is also restricted by our own world view. While museums generally have didactic intentions, they do not always present their own ideologies as openly as their artefacts and collections.[5] Thus my own art practice has sought to try and correct some elements of this epistemological distance, and has led me to work closely with others in similar spheres.[6]


I have though, recently moved away from the Museum, recognising it as a structure which carries all manner of institutional baggage, not least that very name ‘museum’ is synonymous with authority, and also the power-relations which support it. This concern was the focus of my publication The Myth of the Museum,[7] in which I describe the experience of living in several museums, large and small. While in Myth I do manage to escape from the Museum, having questioned my own interest in it, I then find myself applying the same critical questions to  seemingly mundane structures and ideas, and thus returning to sites such as lay-bys and other wayside phenomena which had previously intrigued me.


This leads to the concept of ‘fictioning’, recently considered by Simon O’Sullivan and David Burrows in their book Fictioning: the Myth-Functions of Contemporary Art and Philosophy. Discussing the work of artist Robert Smithson, they state that ‘fictioning functions as a method of presenting the co-presence of many different pasts and futures within a given landscape’[8]. Smithson, who worked largely in the 1960s and is best known for his land art pieces such as Spiral Jetty, was keenly attuned to the possibilities of the ‘non-site’ for its artistic potential, as opposed to the museum or gallery. O’Sullivan and Burrows consider Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, which they consider to be a work of performative fictioning. In this artwork, Smithson gave a lecture about a rundown hotel which he visited in Mexico, treating its architectural anomalies and half-built structures in the same manner as say a building by Le Corbusier. In doing so, he created a fictional and entertaining new interpretation for a place which many would not consider worthy of any detailed consideration.


The concept of fictioning is therefore useful as it draws away from the polarising dichotomy of true/false, fake/real and also from the multi-layered complexity of ‘parafictions’. By positioning fictioning as a performative act, rather than a truth-game it expands the possibilities for what art might achieve especially when it is sited outside traditional modes of physical display.


For my SPIN research fellowship, I have taken as my starting point a military training area in southwest Scotland, and have used it as the basis for a series of fictions. I have done this via an investigation both in person (in the summer of 2020) and through the Scottish archaeological database CANMORE. The materials I gathered in the form of notes and photographs are presented in a publication Ruination is a Form of Time Travel alongside a text which is a rewriting of a section of William Morris’s 1890 novel, The Well at the World’s End. This method allows me to speculate on both the past and future significance of the area, for while its current military use is recent, it will no doubt leave a long archaeological record, which itself may be forgotten or misinterpreted in the years to come. Thus, I hope to provide the reader with a variety of different types of information, and ask that they perform the role of researcher or even pilgrim when reading the text.


In doing so, I argue that any place can be of interest to us, be it a bridge, lay-by, ruin or

stone marker – as all these ‘minor’ sites act as reminders that history and culture are at their root comprised of everyday phenomenon. Piecing them together to create narratives is a complex process of editing, deleting and forgetting, yet one which is always shaped by the existing hierarchies of knowledge. The use of fiction and other speculative practices can therefore enrich and enliven this process – and remind us of the importance of questioning any source of knowledge, old or new, learned or vernacular.





[1]    Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility, October, Vol. 129, pp.51-84.

[2]    Heather Jessup, This is Not a Hoax: Unsettling Truth in Canadian Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019

[3]    Jessup, p.25

[4]    The Museum of Imaginative Knowledge is now closed, but its work is available through a variety of publications from the Imaginative Press – www.press.imaginativeknowledge.org

[5]    This is a point which I have written about in more detail as part of my doctoral research. A museum’s ideology may often be formed of competing interests and tensions – for example that of a historical collection of objects and a curatorial desire to make them relevant for a 21st century audience.

[6]    In particular, the Museum of the Flat Earth (located in Fogo Island, Newfoundland), a project created by artist Kay Burns, and the Museum of Everyday Life (located in Glover, Vermont). Both these institutions undertake a critique of the nature and purpose of museums, and seek to make the visitor reconsider what sort of things or knowledge is appropriate to curate or display.

[7]    Dr James Lattin, the Myth of the Museum, The Imaginative Press, 2020

[8]    Simon O’Sullivan and David Burrows, Fictioning: the Myth-Functions of Contemporary Art and Philosophy, Edinburgh University Press, 2019, p. 133


If anyone would like a paper copy of the publication, please contact James at contact@imaginativeknowledge.org for enquiries.



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