(You can read this interview in Spanish here).
Homo Velamine: The increase of fake news in the media in recent years makes us feel that the limits between fact and fiction are more unclear than ever. In the documentary Art of the Prank (2015), you let the viewer peek into the creative process behind one of your hoaxes. The trickiest part seems to be deciding how far you can take it, without crossing the limits of plausibility and creating something that is impossible to believe. After all these years, does it still surprise you how far this limit can actually be pushed? Which of your performances would you say has pushed this limit the farthest and still has been successful?
Joey Skaggs: Pushing the limits of plausibility is the fun part for me. I create the problem and I create the solution. I take a gamble that what I’m doing is so ridiculous that no one’s going to believe it. I want it to be totally absurd because if the news media does fall for it, it will be even funnier and more effective in revealing their gullibility and/or hypocrisy.
When I did “Metamorphosis: Miracle Roach Hormone Cure” in 1981 I played Dr. Josef Gregor, an entomologist with a medical cure-all made from the hormones of cockroaches. I recruited over 70 “actors” posing as devotees, backing up my claim that my roach vitamins cured acne, anemia, menstrual cramps and made you invulnerable to nuclear radiation—just as roaches are. After a very successful press conference out of which came a syndicated news story that went viral, I went on live TV news. I looked like a wacko: I wore mirrored sunglasses, a white suit over a T-shirt that had a huge image of a cockroach on it, and a white Panama hat with a roach pin on its band. But because I said I was a scientist, the reporters didn’t question me.
I gave the media the opportunity to report a story without them having to sensationalize it. The story and the character were already sensational. I did their work for them. They were just reporting on who I was and what I was doing. The media tends to look for this type of story. It makes the news more entertaining.
People have preconceived notions. If you have long hair they think you’re a hippie. If you have a goatee and wear glasses they assume you’re an intellectual. If you shave your head you’re a skinhead or a punk. If you wear a suit, you’re a square. I play on these stereotypes.
I played another scientist, Dr. Richard J. Long (or Dr. Dick Long), a marine biologist and environmentalist, in “Save the Geoduck”. This time I had short hair, wore glasses and a suit and tie. I was photographed on a dock in Seattle holding a geoduck, a giant clam with a protrusion that looks like the penis of a horse. I had fabricated a story that these clams, indigenous to Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, were endangered because the Japanese were overharvesting them and voraciously consuming them as an aphrodisiac.
At that time the American news media was into stories about American workers smashing Toyota cars and Sony TVs to protest the fact that their manufacturing jobs were disappearing, outsourced to Japan and other countries. Workers were incensed that America was selling them out in order to maximize profits. In the same spirit of Japan-bashing, the media jumped at the chance to make fun of the Japanese for what they were willing to do to increase their sexual prowess with geoducks. The subtext of this story fed into a stereotype of Asians having small penises. A local New York news station, WNBC, went all over town trying to find a geoduck (most people in New York had never seen one). Once they found one and established it was a real creature, they never further questioned the premise of the story, because it was giving TV news hosts a good laugh. Even the weatherman made a penis joke, saying “It’s going to be cold tonight. Freeze your geoduck.”
The same logic of playing on preexisting stereotypes, in this case Native Americans, worked to my advantage in my “Hair Today Ltd.” hoax. As Dr. Joseph Chenango, a Native American surgeon, I said I was doing full scalp transplants from donors with healthy heads of hair who had died working in high-risk professions. Hair Today Ltd had the donors under contract and upon their demise took ownership of their scalps, which Dr. Chenango would then transplant to awaiting bald recipients who were willing to pay thousands of dollars for the procedure. I billed it as the “absolute cure” for baldness.
And, with “Comacocoon”, I said I was Dr. Joseph Schlafer, an anesthesiologist, who would take people on dream vacations while they were in a state of total suspended animation, which was achieved through anesthesiology and subliminal programming. This, by the way, was 25 years before Virtual Reality experiences became popular.
It’s easier to convince people of something when you are playing on their basic fears and prejudices. You hope that when they realize they’ve been had they’ll see how biased they are and change. They’re initially laughing and mocking something until they realize that they are actually the fools. You might not make friends this way, but you’re certainly making a point.
These days I think it’s even easier to get away with playing an outlandish character because it’s more acceptable. Look who we have in the U.S. White House! So, having a full set of shark’s teeth replace my own in my fake documentary Pandora’s Hope, which was about cross-species genetic modification and was featured in Art of the Prank, is not so implausible. It might be shocking but not impossible to believe.
HV: We are curious about the project Art Attack (2002), when you were invited to an artistic event in Spain and you created a videogame where people had to shoot pedestrians from inside the building where the event was taking place. How did it work? Did you get to see a lot of Spain?
JS: In early 2001, I was invited to exhibit at the then relatively new Espai D’Art Contemporani (EACC) in Castellón. The exhibition was called “En el Lado de la Televisión” (On the Side of Television). The show was about the relationships, contradictions, and paradoxes between art and the mass media. I proposed “Art Attack”, an interactive experiential multimedia exhibit with a very strong antiwar message. I wanted to address the detachment of the public from the reality of terrorism and war, which they only saw on TV news. The event was intended to cause outrage and dismay, but also stir a visceral understanding of the personal effects of war. I hoped it would be an effective catalyst for individual change.
I proposed having an outside component in the public space on the grounds of the museum and an inside component in the museum. These spaces would be connected via video, audio, and sensory triggers and lights.
Outside, the public would walk through the «War Zone,» triggering audio and light effects as if they were under attack. Flashing lights would be accompanied by the loud sounds of gunshots, explosions, and the prerecorded cries and screams of innocent victims. Visually the area was to look like a normal, everyday street intersection.
Simultaneously, inside the museum, the «Command Zone,» a darkened, dramatically lit area would be in operation. At its center was a console designed like an arcade game, where random participants, one at a time, operated a machine-gun-like piece of equipment which was set up to trigger the audio and lighting effects in the public space. The participants could step up to the console, see who was walking by outside and shoot the “gun” at them. Images from inside the “War Zone” were to be projected onto an interior wall in the “Command Zone”.
While the museum deliberated about accepting my concept, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. occurred. As a result, the museum felt my piece would be too provocative. However, they invited me to visit the museum anyway to discuss it. When I arrived from New York I discovered that this brand-new museum was constantly being vandalized. Any art placed outside was being covered in graffiti and people were removing the marble tiles from the building’s façade, presumably to use at home for terraces and tables. This inspired me to alter my concept to more closely reflect what was going on outside the museum, which made it more palatable to the museum’s directors. I felt it was as effective as my original idea, so we proceeded.
The city officials lent me police barricades to construct a 4-foot-high barrier along the length of the museum to keep people from getting near the walls. In front of the barricades I created chalk outlines on the ground to represent dead bodies at a crime scene. I mounted speakers high up along the museum walls through which, in English, Spanish and Catalan, an official-sounding voice said, “Attention, attention! You are in an Art Attack zone. Desecrators of this building and art will be shot. Survivors will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Inside the museum, I installed a video arcade game with a fake 45-caliber pistol pointed at the screen. An animation invited you to enter your name so it could show you your score. It was as competitive as any arcade game would be. When the animation finished, you were looking through a camera mounted outside the museum and watching pedestrians walk by in real time. You could point the gun at them and pull the trigger. Gunshots rang out through the outside speakers startling the people walking by.
The outdoor scene with the gunshots from the speakers was projected onto a large wall inside the museum, so people could see what was happening outside. People inside the museum were virtually shooting at the people outside and watching their reactions to the gunfire. People outside, startled by the sounds of war and the chalk outlines of bodies on the street, scrambled to get out of the way.
It was so effective that one evening vandals came in and attacked the Art Attack sculpture. They broke the gun and stole the projector, blinding the surveillance camera. A museum staffer saw them do it and chased them into the street. At great risk to himself, he caught them and rescued the projector, but it was broken. So we had to find a replacement and repair the piece.
I don’t know if this exhibit helped solve the vandalism problem or got us closer to world peace, but I hope that what was essentially an elaborate prank spurred people into thinking differently about reality and empathy; the entertainment value of violence; our fascination with voyeurism; the effect of surveillance cameras on our privacy; and what this all means to our inherent sense of humanitarianism.
I was very impressed by the EACC’s courage in inviting me to exhibit in Castellon and I loved visiting Spain. I’ve been several times. I enjoy the people, the culture, the art, the food and the physical beauty immensely. Looking forward to my next visit.
HV: How have your media hoaxes changed since the 60s until today? How has the appearance and increasing use of the internet influenced this evolution? Thanks to the internet, nowadays it’s easier to spread false information, but it’s also more difficult, when revealing it was a hoax, to reach all those who believed it in the first place. In other words, are people’s almost unlimited access to an infinite range of sources of information the dream or the nightmare of the media jammer?
JS: The issues that provoked and inspired me in the 1960s are essentially the same today: hype, hypocrisy, the misuse of power, social injustice, and a torqued egocentric value system. The internet has added new dimensions in how I put out a story and how I track it. The Net also allows me to enlist and work with co-conspirators around the world in real time. Before the internet I used a wide range of strategies to access the media and I still use those analog techniques when I think they’ll be effective. I’ve used snail mail, plastered posters on billboards, placed ads in newspapers, produced fake TV commercials, promoted fake businesses, announced fake parades, and I even show up in person and create a spectacle, making it impossible to be ignored; for example with my mobile confessional booth, “Portofess”.
In 1992, playing Father Anthony Joseph, I didn’t announce the hoax ahead of time. I just showed up at the Democratic National Convention in New York dressed as a priest and riding a heavy-duty tricycle with a confessional booth mounted on the back. I handed out a printed statement that read in part, “Religion on the move for people on the go. The church must go where the sinners are”. Reporters were everywhere, so the story and sensational visual went around the world. To reveal the truth, I mailed out a press release, which was widely disseminated.
Another pre-internet hoax, in 1994, was “Dog Meat Soup”. As Korean entrepreneur Kim Yung Soo, I didn’t have to stage anything. I just mailed 1,500 solicitation letters to dog shelters around the country offering to buy their unwanted dogs for 10-cents a pound to be cooked, canned, and consumed by humans. The moral outrage was immediate and loud. The animal shelters did all the work for me, contacting the media and the authorities. A Sunday New York Times Magazine article by John Tierney covered the entire action from beginning to end.
Using the internet, in 1993, posing as Joseph Skaggs, PhD, I launched “SEXONIX”, the world’s first sexual virtual reality company. The story was that I was planning to exhibit my equipment and software at the Metro Toronto Christmas Gift and Invention Show in Canada. However, the shipment from New York was —so I said— confiscated by Canadian Customs at the border, classified as obscene material.
This was quite possibly the first internet media hoax. I used electronic bulletin boards like The Well in San Francisco and Echo in New York to seek assistance to get my equipment back from the Canadians. Those BBSs, where people discussed various topics, were the precursors to today’s social media apps. Creating a topic called “SEXONIX Confiscation Conference” I posted that my invention had been impounded by the puritanical Canadian government, depriving Canadian citizens of their first virtual reality sex experience. I asked the BBS community for help in getting my stuff back. People were outraged at the government overreach and censorship and leapt to my defense.
When it was revealed to be a hoax, people were again outraged. This time at me. Back then, online communities were considered sacred spaces. People thought that whatever was said online was true and they were righteously indignant that someone would purposely con them. I thought they were so incredibly naïve. With the coming of the internet, the World Wide Web, all that changed. The internet is fertile ground for lies, disinformation and propaganda.
In 1996, I did “Stop BioPEEP”. BioPEEP stood for Biological Protocol for Enhanced Economic Production. As whistleblower Dr. Joseph Howard, I exposed this protocol which was a new weapon I called “gene-ocide.” It used a genetically engineered virus to attack the DNA of specific racial or ethnic groups. It could be delivered to the intended target by food or water. When triggered, the deadly virus would effectively wipe out entire populations with no warning. They had no means to retaliate. It would be quick and efficient genocide.
I could not have done this without the internet. I had co-conspirators across the United States, in Australia, and Slovenia. We created an international website with support materials to leak documents showing that the U.S. military was involved in this heinous plot. I organized public street protests in New York City and in Brisbane, Australia and sent out press releases via email and snail mail to news media around the world.
The “Final Curtain”, in 1998, a parody of the death care industry, was highly dependent on a website. In order to promote the cemetery theme park I placed ads in a variety of publications that said “Death got you down? At last an alternative – www.finalcurtain.com.” When inquiries came in from the media asking to speak to one or another of the staff members listed on the website, I played all the parts. My co-conspirators, who helped design the park, the franchiseable business model, the website, and their own memorials for the theme park, were in France, New York, Seattle, California, Hawaii, etc., so email was essential.
We live in a world where we all need to question everything we see and hear. So, how does a media artist using the internet to make social commentary differentiate his message from political operatives who promote disinformation for political gain or scammers hustling to make money? Obviously it’s difficult, but I feel I have an obligation to the public to make sure the distinction is clear.
The internet has theoretically made the world more democratic in the sense that more people can contribute to the conversation. But the internet is not only a tool, it has become a weapon. I’m reminded of a short Surrealist poem by Jacques Prévert, “It Droppeth as the Gentle Rain.” It is about a ballet in which shit is falling from the sky and the dancers have to move around on stilts. That’s what it feels like now. The shit’s getting deeper.
HV: On your website, where you list all your past work, you divide each of the performances in three stages: hook, line and sinker. For some of the older pranks you document how the media publicly acknowledged, after the sinker, that they had fallen for it. However, this admission seems to be less and less frequent. Is the media less honest these days than it used to be? Or have we reached a stage where the media doesn’t feel the need to acknowledge a mistake because we take for granted that a percentage of media coverage is always going to be fake?
JS: In my media pranks, the “hook” describes the concept I put out into the world. The “line” follows where the story went, showing how the media reported it. The “sinker” is the exposé showing why I did it and how the media covered it.
The sinker/exposé is the most critical part for me. It gives me the opportunity to explain my intent and show what happened. It’s also the most difficult part, because although the news media purportedly has an ethical obligation to correct their inaccuracies, they prefer not to. When the public questions their credibility as news sources, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant. So retractions are usually buried if provided at all. And if provided, they frequently attack, dismiss or trivialize me. They rarely examine their own failings. They also commonly implicate other publications that fell for the hoax as well. As if that makes it less of a travesty.
But not all of my performances are media hoaxes. Instead, they can be a work of art or a street performance that uses irony and humor to make a point. So sometimes there’s no need for a retraction.
My “Fish Condos”, for example, are satirical fish-tank sculptures. I designed the tanks to depict living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens for upwardly mobile guppies. Since we are destroying the planet by polluting the air, the earth and the oceans, fish will soon need better homes. The concept took off worldwide. It wasn’t a hoax. It was a satirical visual that manifested in the form of working aquatic sculptures that surprised people and made them laugh. That we are destroying the planet was the underlying message I hoped sank in.
My “Bigfoot and Tiny Top Circus” performance piece was pure street theater. It focused on the capture and exhibition of Bigfoot and his escape in New York City. This was making fun of believers in Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, the Lochness Monster, and other fantasies people hold sacred.
HV: Isn’t it frustrating that there are always going to be people willing to believe the most far-fetched pranks instead of questioning first the truthfulness of what they find odd or offensive? In your opinion, to what extent does the success of these pranks depend on the media and to what extent does it depend on the willingness to believe of the people who receive them?
JS: Differentiating between the media and the public is a bit of a false narrative. The news media does not represent some magical force. It’s just people who are beholden to the objectives of the companies they work for, doing their jobs.
And it’s not simply pranks that people readily fall for. They fall for all kinds of propaganda and disinformation. It’s not a far stretch to believe something that is presented to you as fact. People are willing to be believers. They suspend critical analysis for wishful thinking.
We are all purposefully indoctrinated by our parents and by society. We are taught to believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and religious miracles. Besides living in a world of illusion, we live in a world of delusion. So believing in pranks is no big leap. We expect to hear about new scientific discoveries or extreme examples of human behavior.
The fact that the media does little to research my far-fetched stories should not be surprising. All of my pranks have an element of plausibility. Journalists are usually under time pressure, and I offer good material for them. My documentation indicates how frequently journalists suspend their professional skepticism just to get a good story, and keep their bosses happy, even though there are numerous clues that the story isn’t true.
The media is essentially giving people what they want to hear while trying to sell them something. Media is a big business. They not only inform but manipulate and control: you sway you sell. They want you to vote a certain way, support their sponsors, and maximize profits.
So, the truth is very hard to get at for both the media and media consumers.
HV: Have you ever censored yourself? Has there ever been a project or idea you have discarded because of possible negative consequences or moral repercussions?
JS: I’m always censoring myself. It’s part of the process of coming up with a viable idea. In the 1960s, I decided to create a new art movement, which I called the Bowel Movement. My first piece was going to be called “Obstruction”. I would put a giant turd or a tampon on the back of a flatbed truck and drive it into one of New York’s tunnels. Half way into the tunnel, I, with some friends, would unload it. I’d have camera crews on both ends to document what happened with traffic backed up and emergency vehicles extricating the object from the tunnel. This would undoubtedly make the news. But what if there was a fire in the tunnel while I created this traffic jam, or someone had a heart attack and died?
I realized there could be serious consequences to my actions. I didn’t want to jeopardize other people. I didn’t want to cause harm. A little inconvenience or embarrassment is one thing. Causing injury or death is another.
Around the same time, I pulled a stunt on my friend the playwright Sam Shepard. This was a nutty idea which, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done. But I thought it was so funny I couldn’t resist. I wrote about it in 2013 for HuffPost. It was called “Lucky Loser: My Aborted Attempt to Kidnap Sam Shepard”.
Another project I abandoned about ten years ago started as a hoax, but that was just to get it launched. I thought the concept could take on a life of its own. It was essentially a commentary on an aspect of life and human interaction that we don’t like to think about but we all face. It was an online dating service for the terminally ill. I called it “Til Death Do Us Part.”
I had been struck by the proliferation of dating sites catering to every possible aspect of human interest and attraction except for one: the ultimate reality of life, which is death. What can people who are terminally ill do about their needs, fantasies and desires?
Unlike my Final Curtain hoax, which was about the death care industry, this was directly about each of us dealing with our own death. I had no idea what thoughts, actions, controversies or conversations this piece would provoke, which is what I found exciting.
I constructed a dating website and asked friends to pretend they were terminally ill and create fake dating bios with photos for the site and then solicit companionship and sexual relations. Since both parties were terminal, there were no rules or restrictions. So users would think, WTF, why not go for it?
The plan was to attract real terminally ill people to replace the fake terminally ill people. That began to happen, but I got turned off when the majority of the “real” responders seemed to be either hustlers looking to scam participants or journalists pretending to be terminally ill. The many journalists who contacted me directly were only interested in the sexual angle of the dating service. What could make a more juicy story than dying people, young and old, trying to get laid?
I felt uneasy with the way it was going. I didn’t want to have innocent, unknowing victims harmed in any way. I didn’t want to feel I was exploiting other people’s misery.
So I pulled the plug and sent a letter to my co-conspirators explaining why.
When I played the priest in my “Portofess” hoax, I prepped by reading Catholic texts to learn the procedures for conducting a confession. I also became ordained as a bishop through the mail-order Universal Life Church. The people who lined up to confess during the event were all actor friends, but “real” people wanted to confess too. I did the best I could to keep them out. To some I said, “Sorry but I have an appointment with Ted Kennedy, come back in half an hour.” However, I couldn’t stop them all. One person came in and confessed to killing someone. I was immediately faced with what to do. Do I believe him? Do I tell him I’m not really a priest and what I was doing was a satire, risking the possibility he’d get pissed off and shoot me? I told him his confession dealt with something that was really serious, and that he should ask for God’s forgiveness and never do it again. I later spoke with a police detective who said there was nothing they would or could have done about it.
HV: Do you have a list of do’s and don’ts or moral code you apply to your work? And if you do, has it changed throughout the years, as your view of the world has evolved?
JS: I have always had a strong ethical code, and my commitment to my art form has never wavered. From the very beginning, I was clear that I was entering new territory, challenging artistic norms. I had my own rules, which consisted of not scamming people for profit, not intentionally harming anyone, and not destroying other people’s property. I didn’t care if I offended people. Actually, my intention was to offend people.
I was angry (and still am) about social injustice, racism, religious dogma and the misuse of power. As the black sheep in my family, I alienated my parents, siblings, their friends and total strangers with my convictions. I was adamantly opposed to the war in Vietnam when it was not popular to be so. My father had served in the military in WW2 and both of my brothers served during the Vietnam era.
My work in those days was extremely confrontational. For four consecutive Easters starting in 1966, I dragged my “Crucifixion”, a life-size sculpture of a dead, decayed figure with exposed genitalia nailed to a wooden cross through the streets of New York City. In 1969, I carried it down Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the middle of the traditionally festive and colorful Easter Parade. On Christmas Day 1968, I erected a Vietnamese Christmas Nativity scene in New York’s Central Park and attempted to burn it to the ground to protest the war in Vietnam. In 1969, on July 4th, American Independence Day, I carried through the streets several Grotesque Statues of Liberty holding dismembered babies’ bodies.
When I saw how the media responded to these actions with pejorative, often hostile reports riddled with inaccuracies, I realized the incredible power the media has to mold public opinion. I then made a conscious choice to use the media as my medium and to develop my art form so that I could communicate with as many people as I could. I wanted to shed light on the underbelly of the media for as wide an audience as possible, pointing out its vulnerabilities and faults. I involved other artists, actors, and friends who shared my sensibilities in these efforts. I vowed to myself that I would always reveal the truth and explain my reasons after successfully getting media attention because I now knew I could not trust the media’s interpretations.
It was never easy. There were no college courses in creative activism, conceptual performance art, or culture-jamming. There were no grants. There were no galleries willing to exhibit this kind of work. What I was doing had no name and wasn’t even considered an art form. It was essentially ephemeral. In fact, in those days the media frequently didn’t attribute my actions to me. They reported as if these were just isolated news stories they’d dug up.
To help people understand what I was doing and why, I wrote an editorial called “The Art of the Con” for a magazine called Extra! which is published by a venerable nonprofit organization called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). The article laid out my modus operandi.
HV: What’s your opinion on the current state of US politics? We find it interesting that the so-called “meme wars” have been endorsed to a great extent by the alt-right. Do you think that the right has succeeded in using “irreverent” humour for its own benefit?
JS: In an article I wrote for HuffPost “When Dogs Ruled the World”, I express what I’m sure a lot of people think about politics.
I think we’re seeing some serious cracks in our democracy. Not that they haven’t always been there, but they are suddenly much more visible. The hypocrisy of democracy is blatantly evident. People freely and sometimes violently express their contempt for others who are not like them. Civility and compromise are rare. And yes, alt-right operatives have co-opted culture-jamming techniques to support their political agenda. But I don’t see any humor being used by the right. To me there’s nothing funny about their ideas.
HV: Is there such a thing as right-wing culture jamming? Could you name an event or performance of which you don’t share the ideology, but that you consider daring or witty?
JS: There seems to be a growing use by the right of subversive techniques such as deep fakes, false documentaries, altered footage, and brazen lies. They learned some lessons from media jammers, but they’ve also learned from Hitler and Goebbels, who lived by the adage, “Say it loud and say it often.” They use misleading content, secret surveillance, and complete fabrications to humiliate, shame, embarrass and perpetuate lies.
Unlike culture jammers who use these techniques to reveal the truth, enlighten or educate, the alt-right are trying to convince you of a false scenario without the intent to expose any truth, heal wounds or bring people together. They’re attempting to divide, convince and conquer. I find them dangerous, hostile and very cynical.
This is the world we live in today. There are spin doctors everywhere. One has to focus on becoming media literate, which means being more discerning as a media consumer, identifying who’s delivering the message and why. The trick is to not become jaded. Yes, be skeptical, but remain hopeful.
HV: Two of your latest performances, in 2017 and 2018, were directly aimed at Donald Trump. If we’re not mistaken, you had never before aimed at a specific president or politician. If this is the case, what made you change your strategy and focus specifically on Trump?
JS: I don’t usually target individuals, however, since 1986 I’ve put on an annual April Fools’ Day Parade in New York City. Each year I’ve called out politicians, celebrities, and other buttholes who, by virtue of their scurrilous actions over the course of the year, are candidates for the coveted King of Fools Crown.
In 2004, I did “Bush!” It was a fake pro-Bush parade. And, during the three years since Trump was elected, I’ve done four anti-Trump actions. I will continue to do so as long as this anal ventriloquist is in the White House. I am deeply saddened that he became the president of the United States. Not only do I strongly disagree with his policies, which I believe are irresponsible, destructive, short-sighted and greedy, but I have contempt for his character. Or shall I say lack thereof.
We have an election coming up in a year. And I’d like to do whatever I can to help persuade people to vote him out of office.
HV: In the early days of your activity as a media hoaxer, and also in the ’70s and ’80s, your performances seemed to focus fundamentally on criticizing the media. Nowadays, when the honesty of the media is very much questioned, do you think the focus should continue to be on exposing the media’s fake news? Or is it more urgent to make people aware of their need to develop strategies to detect when the media is reporting truthfully and when there are other economic or political interests at play? (That is, shall we keep fighting the battle against the media or is it more pressing to fight the public’s gullibility?)
JS: Fooling the media is only one element of my focus. To me, art is to communicate and the biggest medium of communication is the media. So I use it to communicate with the public. I am targeting both the media and the public. For over 50 years I’ve been a messenger ringing the bell to point out hype, hypocrisy and social injustice. Satire and humor are my tools to inform, provoke and inspire change.
When I stage a media prank, I put it out there for everyone. Whoever falls for it has to deal with the consequences. I don’t target specific news outlets. A fool is a fool, no matter what their political leaning is. If you’re a sloppy irresponsible journalist, I don’t care who you work for. As far as the populace, I believe media literacy should be taught starting at a young age so that children can differentiate between being accurately informed and being sold a bill of goods.
HV: Who do you consider to have been inspired by your work? The Yes Men come to mind. Could you name someone else in a European context?
JS: That’s a question best answered by other artists and activists. I hope I have inspired some of them, just as I have been inspired by the work of artists who came before me. Having taught at the School of Visual Arts, an art college in New York, made presentations around the world and toured with Art of the Prank, the documentary film about my work, I’ve spoken to a wide range of audiences. But I’m not the one to say who specifically I’ve inspired if anyone.
HV: Ever more frequently we see that a piece of news is interpreted in different ways depending on what media reports on it, and as a result, several versions of “the truth” coexist, each of them tailored in order to please a specific audience. In a world in which this situation seems to have become the norm, the role of the media jammer risks passing completely unnoticed, or worse, of contributing even more to disinformation. How do you think we can combat this risk?
JS: Pranks are ubiquitous. They’re mostly inane, egotistical or vindictive, and run the risk of adding to the noise instead of bringing clarity. The risk for any artist is—and has always been—that their premise is ill-formed, that it doesn’t communicate what they want to say. You don’t want to be ignored, misinterpreted, prematurely exposed, busted or caught up in lawsuits. The most important thing is to get the true meaning of your message out. It’s a competitive world on all levels. There’s no guarantee that just because you launch something it’s going to work. You have to be smart and imaginative—you are creating a work of art.
There’s an exercise I give my students. I ask them to come up with different ways of addressing the same issue. It’s not as easy as it sounds. People are normally content to go with their first and only idea. But the imagination is a muscle that should be exercised and the only way to do that is to use it.
You’re conceiving, writing, directing, producing, acting, and coming up with costumes, props, and locations. You’re writing press releases and shooting photos and videos, all within the confines of a budget. This kind of work—using the prank as conceptual performance art—embraces many artistic disciplines.
Stretching your imagination will help you look at a problem from different perspectives. You can create ironic reversals, juxtapositions of reality, or do direct political actions.
With my “Hippie Bus Tour to Queens”, I took long-haired, bearded, beaded hippies on a tour to view normal people in the suburbs. They were all toting cameras to take pictures of the Queens natives. I called it my cultural exchange program.
With my “Bad Guys Talent Management Agency”, which catered to bad guys, bad girls, bad kids and bad dogs—“venomous vixens, burley bouncers and slimey sleazes”—I put the focus on ugly, bad or scary models rather than on typically beautiful people. I knew there was a need for this.
With “Doody Rudy”, I invited the public to throw fake elephant dung at a giant portrait of then-Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani portrayed as the Madonna. This, after he had tried to shut down the Brooklyn Museum for displaying an African artist’s portrait of the Madonna painted with elephant dung. This was a direct political statement.
HV: Have you ever feared that someone whose ideology you didn’t share took advantage of one of your performances for their own benefit?
JS: Over the years I have watched total strangers take credit for something I’ve done as if they’ve conceived it themselves. I’ve seen my ideas co-opted by commercial entities, comedians, TV cartoons, and more. When people copy your work, you’re supposed to see it as a form of flattery. But when it’s not attributed to you it’s a hard pill to swallow.
There have also been incidences of people trying to inject their own agenda into my performances. When that happens, I nip it in the bud and say, “If you want to do that, go do your own thing.”
When I was JoJo, King of the New York Gypsies for my “Gypsy Moth Protest”, I called for the renaming of the Gypsy moth. I said, “Call it the Ayatollah moth, call it the Idi Amin moth, call it the Hitler moth, but not the Gypsy moth. We Gypsies have taken enough abuse.”
I had numerous actor friends stereotypically dressed as gypsies march with me in front of the New York Governor’s Midtown Manhattan office shouting, “Rename the Gypsy Moth!”
One actor, a friend of a friend, came outrageously dressed as a gay tinkerbell. His issue was gay rights. I had to ask him to leave as it was totally off-message. Although I supported his desire for equal rights, my piece was about Gypsy rights and I did not want my message to be diluted by his agenda. It’s important that everyone is in the same lane and focused. Otherwise, the message isn’t clear.
HV: Is the role of the media jammer still valid today? Does it need to change in any way? And if so, what is now the main challenge that this form of social criticism has to face, and what should be its main aim?
JS: The role of the dissenter has always been and will always be necessary for the evolution of society. Inequity and exploitation are universal and constantly need to be challenged. Media jammers, carrying on the great tradition of the court jester, have the opportunity to bring attention to prejudices and preconceived notions. The delivery technologies of communicating and storytelling have evolved, but the need for someone to point out the grievances has not.
Whether it’s a totalitarian dictatorship or a democracy, all dissenters risk consequences to varying degrees. As an artist, activist, jammer, or whatever label you choose, the main challenge is, as always, to speak truth to power and not give up.