Who is Joey Skaggs?
In case you’re wondering, Joey Skaggs is the man who has turned the media hoax and the prank into an art form and has been doing so for decades. Whether you’re familiar with him or not, the film ‘Art of The Prank’ ( which has been made available to purchase online in the US and Canada and now the UK ) documents his life and work. I stumbled across his work quite unexpectedly and intrigued, delved a little further, finding myself totally absorbed and wanting to know more. I recommend that you do yourself a favour and go buy the movie.
I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Joey and ask him a few questions for this interview. Bunny Shepard
All photos are “Courtesy Joey Skaggs Archive”
Bunny The first time that I became aware of your work was through watching the Art of The Prank on Sky Arts in the UK. I think it’s interesting how your work has come to the fore in the current political climate and is reaching people who may have missed it in the past. What has been the reaction to the movie and have the responses varied geographically?
Joey The film is timely, but not by design. I think its message has always been timely. Namely, that we are bombarded with information that’s not always correct or honest; information that might be biased or prejudiced. We are constantly targeted by marketers of all kinds who try to mold our opinions to suit their own agendas. People need to be aware of this and remain skeptical, critical, and analytical all the time. I feel we should always be ready to formulate our own opinions and be open enough to change them if facts prove otherwise.
The movie is just now being released to the public after having screened at international arts and film festivals in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. It’s won numerous awards and the reviews have been great. My hat is off to Andrea Marini, the film’s director, who took a massive amount of past and current material and turned it into a film that seems to be resonating with a lot of people. The Q&As after the screenings are intense. Lots of people stay engaged until the theatres kick us out. That to me is a sign that it is touching audiences in a profound way. Given these experiences, I would say that the movie taps into universal themes and raises universal questions. My ultimate hope is that after watching the film people will question their core beliefs, asking themselves how they came to those beliefs and if they ever question the source of those beliefs. If not, why not?
B. After graduating in the 60’s you chose to move away from the structural framework of the “Art World” and managed to forge your own creative path, working within another framework (that of the mainstream media) but in a way that has allowed you greater autonomy and making the choices of how and when you wish to engage with it. It appears that you have managed pursue your own creativity without being compromised. What are you thoughts on this ?
J. As a young artist I never wanted to be pigeonholed or limited in what I could do and when I could do it. At the time, various art movements, which were probably created, curated and promoted by art business marketers, were flourishing. Galleries only showed pop art or op art or minimalism or abstract expressionism or funk or punk or photo-realism. The art world is a business, and in order to stay in business they must be profitable. If you are dedicated to the pursuit of your own work, and that work does not fit with a current theme, you can either quit or find another way to pursue your own calling. Because I wasn’t engaged with the art establishment, I didn’t have to conform to anything.
Joey Skaggs’ and his Crucifixion sculpture on the front page of the East Village Other (1966)
My media works—call them performance art, conceptual art, multi-media, whatever–are essentially ephemeral and non-commercial. They are confrontational projects that, years ago, were mostly not recognized as art. So, it was out of necessity that I collected and preserved whatever was written or televised about my “social engagements”. I laminated original newspaper articles, and collected video copies of television shows. If I had not done that, I would have very little to show now for my life’s work.
B. Do you still paint and sculpt? How important is this to you ?
J. Yes. I do whatever I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. I’m not under pressure to produce a certain kind of art. Everything I’ve ever learned is useful for whatever I’m currently doing.
B. What I find difficult about the art world is the ever shifting hierarchy of what’s in and what’s not, say within academia or critics. On the one hand this chasing of some kind of “credible acknowledgement” is unimportant but equally, creative people need to survive and to even thrive. I think that a lot of graduates continue to be disillusioned with the art world for similar reasons to those you state in the movie. Even with the advent of the internet, nothing seems to have changed since the sixties. What do you think?
J. This pattern goes back much further than the 60’s. With art, it has always been an issue of either conforming to what’s accepted or doing what someone tells you to do. There’s always been a system of patronage. You can say, “Fuck it, I’m going to do it my way”. You just need to be aware of the consequences. And, there are consequences you never thought would come up.
It’s an on-going battle. It’s a struggle. Some people are more capable of dealing with it than others. A lot of great talent has never seen the light of recognition. And many artists who have broken or challenged the norm have gone on to great acclaim.
I made a conscious decision early in my life to avoid falling into the traps of trying to please someone else. I owe that in part to having been rejected by my own family at an early age. I had to find a way to pursue my own passions. It’s all about choices. What’s important to you? What’s important to me is to be free of encumbrances.
B. What interests you in the art world today?
J I like to see it all. And, I have just as much enjoyment walking through a hardware store, toy store , bookstore or garden as walking through a gallery. I love seeing expressions of creativity in everything.
B The notion of Outsider Art is a contentious term, an art genre that seems to be gaining a greater presence as a specialised fields of interest within certain art circles. Do you see this as a positive move towards a more open approach to the creativity of people in general or as an attempt to assimilate it into something within the existing framework?
J I think the use of the term Outsider Art is pretentious and contemptible. It’s a snobbish construct made by ignorant and/or biased people. I particularly find it offensive when I hear phrases like a “supposed artist” or “self-proclaimed artist”. It’s a put-down. Do they take the time to look at the person’s credentials or training and life’s work? Or, even try to grasp their intent in the pursuit of self-expression? You have to have thick skin. You can’t let the opinions of critics deter you.
B. Was Art of The Prank a consequence of Pandora’s Hope or was Art Of The Prank conceived as being a way of introducing your work to a wider public?
J. Initially I told Andrea, “Here’s my archive, have fun”. But he wanted a current narrative to weave throughout the film. He wanted to follow me as I attempted to perpetrate a new media hoax. I asked him how he would film this? Would he have a full film crew hanging around with me as I wait for some unsuspecting sucker to respond to a new hoax? It could take months. So, I came up with the idea to produce and direct Pandora’s Hope, the fake documentary that takes place in Hawaii, to give him something interesting to film. The issues in the film are of urgent concern to me, so it was a win-win situation. I, of course, had no idea how the project would unfold. But that is, I think, one of the things that makes it interesting to watch.
B. Cultural Jamming is one of those terms that was off my radar until recently, where do you think its going within the current political climate?
J. Culture Jamming is a term used to pigeonhole satire used by activists in today’s media environment. It’s a catch-all phrase. The proliferation of social critique by activists has been energised by advancements in technology, predominantly the Internet. Actions can span from billboard alteration to wheat-pasting to faking out news journalists to hacking to a myriad of other techniques and tactics. These are actions used by artists and dissidents to try to change consciousness by disrupting the status quo. We’ve always been engaged in ideological warfare. Everywhere there’s a difference of opinion or some kind of oppression, there’s going to be dissent. Culture Jamming is just a way to label this.
And now, instead of this sort of dissent being solely in the hands of the left-leaning activists who are fighting social injustice, it’s been co-opted by advertisers and also used shockingly well by the political right. A lot of people are making a lot of noise, with few people listening. When everyone’s kicking in the pond, the water gets pretty muddy.
People in power always gain more by keeping people divided. It’s always been this way, and will continue until the powers that keep us divided are overthrown, either politically or physically. But are you going to keep your mouth shut if you find something to be repugnant and repulsive or unjust? No. Especially if it’s happening directly to you. You’re going to want to speak out and try to change things.
B . What music are you listening too? Anything you would recommend checking out?
J. I look at music like I look at food. It’s necessary. I have my favourites, but I like to taste new things. I have eclectic taste.
B. As well as being thought provoking, your pranks are incredibly playful. It seems to me that more and more people are feeling obligated to come up with polarised opinions, because it’s easier and safer to be compromised by certain extremes. Are we losing our sense of playfulness?
J. Having a sense of humor is a key ingredient for me. One has to be able to laugh at oneself and the world. But even with humor and satire, there’s always an edge. It’s always a balancing act between what’s biting and what’s funny. I like to have both.
Photo of Joey Skaggs with his Crucifixion sculpture on 5th Avenue during the Easter Parade, East Village Other (1969)
I started out doing very confrontational works of art to express my outrage: Carrying a Crucifix on Easter Sunday; attempting to burn a Vietnamese Nativity scene on Christmas Day in New York’s Central Park; displaying Grotesque Statues of Liberty with Dismembered Baby Bodies, as a statement against the war in Vietnam on American Independence Day.
Joey Skaggs with his Grotesque Statues of Liberty (1969)
But I also did humorous things like my Hippie Bus Tour to Queens where I took a bus load of hippies from Greenwich Village on a sightseeing tour of the suburbs. I hung a 50 Foot Brassiere on the Treasury Building on Valentine’s Day to protest leering, cat-calling Wall Street workers. I pedalled an outrageously decorated wedding tricycle for my Mock Hell’s Angels Wedding. So, I’ve mixed confrontational, in your face, angry statements with satirical humorous pieces.
Joey Skaggs’ Bus Tour to Queens (1968)
I find that sometimes, if you are preoccupied with yelling at people, whether literally or through art, people don’t want to hear the message. Humor is a great way to reach people and make them look at things in a new way. Laughter cures a lot of pain and anger. I’ve always mixed the two.
I do understand that it’s hard for people to maintain a sense of playfulness if they feel hopeless. We’re in a really raw period with political mis-representation, the exploitation of our environment, and the threat of nuclear annihilation by forces outside of our control. It’s as if nothing has changed. The evolution of consciousness seems to take a really looooong time.
B. What’s your next venture?
J. Wouldn’t you like to know!
B. You talk about the notion of the “we” rather than the focus being on the “I” could you say a little about this and why its important to your work?
J. As a painter, it’s always just me and the canvas. I attack the canvas with color and continue until I feel there is something being said and then stop. In essence, I’m in control. There is no one to answer to. It is my self-expression. However, when I do a performance piece, generally I need the cooperation of other people. It’s like a play or a movie. Even if it’s a one-man play, you need other people to help make it happen. So I am indebted to the co-conspirators who have helped me over the decades to realize my work. It took 25 actors and 15 dogs to perpetrate the Cathouse for Dogs hoax. It took a hoard of people to do the Celebrity Sperm Bank superstar sperm auction. It took 60 bearded, beaded, camera-toting hippies to pull off my Bus Tour to Queens. It took 50 people to enact my Solomon hoax. From my April Fools’ Day Parade to my faux pro-Bush parade I’ve used hundreds of people to execute my performances. I’ve even appealed to the general public to participate, as with my Tiny Top Circus Bigfoot event.
Joey Skaggs Tiny Top Circus poster (2014)
Joey Skaggs and crew pose after his Bigfoot & Tiny Top Circus performance in Washington Square Park (2014)
The “we” for me is a necessity. When I pretended to be a Korean businessman in my Dog Meat Soup hoax, offering to buy unwanted dogs for $.10 a pound to cook, can and sell as food, all it took was a letter to dog shelters around the country and a tape recorder to record in-coming calls. But, I still needed Korean friends to help me with the out-going message on my answering machine. And I needed friends at my local copy shop to deal with the onslaught of outraged animal affairs people and media who came looking for me because I used their address as my mailing address.
Dog Meat Soup (1994)
Even Portofess, my mobile confessional booth mounted on the back of a tricycle, required the help of scores of people to pull it off.
Joey Skaggs, pedals his Portofess to the Democratic National Convention in New York (1992)
It’s great to be able to work with other like-minded people. There’s a great sense of communal accomplishment when the project succeeds.
I look at myself as being the composer and orchestra conductor. The co-conspirators are the instruments. They have the freedom and flexibility to use their talents to make the piece richer as long as they stay on theme and in tune with my concept.
B. Many thanks Joey , look forward to hearing more about you in the media .
Art of the Prank is available for public and private screenings everywhere and will be available for digital streaming and downloads in the U.S. and Canada as of October 9 on iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, Vimeo, Hoopla and Googleplay. It will be available later for the rest of the world.
Links about the movie release:
iTunes (U.S. & Canada): https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/art-of-the-prank/id1269191237
iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, Vimeo, and Googleplay: Available October 9, 2017
Public and Private Screenings: http://www.videoproject.com/Art-of-the-Prank-CS.html
Educational Distribution: http://www.videoproject.com/Art-of-the-Prank.html