Hoax us, poke us

Media Satirist Joey Skaggs sets up scams in order to send a message to the masses

Time Out New York
March 29-April 5, 2001
By Billie Cohen





Don't bring confetti. Don't pack a camera. And by all means, don't hang out on the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue on Sunday 1, waiting for the 16th Annual April Fools' Day Parade. Unless, of course, you want to be one of the fools.

The "parade" is actually a hoax perpetrated annually by media-satirist-artist Joey Skaggs, whose authentic-looking press releases and official-sounding "New York April Fools' Committee" answering-machine message convince a few news outlets every year to attempt to cover this nonevent.

Equal parts performance artist and prankster, Skaggs has been staging hoaxes since 1966, and in 35 years, he's never put out a hook that didn't get a bite. He calls himself a media activist, and his art consists of using the tools of the press to expose its own gullibility. In the process, he hopes to stimulate social awareness, question authority and encourage people to develop their own ideas about things like racism, prejudice and social hypocrisy. His pranks have included a 1982 campaign, staged by an angry Gypsy group, to rename the politically incorrect gypsy moth (The New York Times fell for this one, but retracted the story five days later); and an event during the Brookyln Museum of Art's "SENSATION" scandal in which New Yorkers were invited to throw fake dung at ta painting of Mayor Giuliani for a buck.

Although Skaggs enjoys watching the mayhem he sets in motion, he's not in it for the laughs. "There are very serious issues underneath the humor," he says from his West Village office. "[The point is] to make people -- whether they think about it, laugh about it or get angry about it -- realize, Wait a minute, there's something going on here."

To help people figure it out, Skaggs outlines on his website the three phases of each scam: the hook (the information he sends out to the media), line (documentation of what he calls "the phenomenon of miscommunication: where it goes, and who does what with it") and sinker (what happens when he reveals the turth, which he does every time). "I always do a press release or make an announcement, because it's important for people to realize what the intent is," he says.

But is it art? "Well, a hoax is art because I make it art," he says. "It's not a burning bag of shit on the porch, and you ring the doorbell and somebody stomps it to put it out, and then you laugh. It's far more complicated than that." Skaggs compares his capers to theatrical pieces because they require similar production, direction and staging. He prints up flyers, buys newspaper or radio ads, and in some cases hires actors to add another level of reality, as he did when he enlisted someone to impersonate him on Entertainment Tonight and when he employed thespians to work his Celebrity Sperm Auction event.

A New York native with a background in painting and sculpting, skaggs graduated from the School of Visual Arts and taught at Parsons. Unsatisfied with letting galleries determine when and where he could show his work, and wanting to focus on social issues, Skaggs started doing things his own way. His first effort was a protest against the Vietnam War, for which he built a life-size Vietnamese village and hired actors to dress up as soldiers. "Numerous people were arrested, and The New York Times covered the piece, but [the article reported] 'the hippies were arrested for littering.' It didn't quite convey my intent," he recalls with disappointment. That was when Skaggs realized the power the media wields in public opinion. "People use the media to get attention for themselves or for a product or a service," he explains. "As an artist, you send out an announcement: Please come to my show and give me a review. That's not proactive -- it's waiting for the media to come to you and letting them decide if what you're doing makes the cut. So I decided that I would make the media the work of art."

One of Skaggs's most infamous stunts was the Cathouse for Dogs affair. In 1976, he placed an ad in The Village Voice offering sexual gratification for dogs for $50 a pop. After sending out press releases, Skaggs set up a phone line and hired ators to bring the cathouse to life in a Soho loft. People were outraged. WABC TV even ran a story on the animanl atrocity as if it were real. Skaggs wound up with a subpoena, and when it came time to answer it, he revealed that the whole thing was a hoax.

As scams go, however, the April Fools' Day Parade is a little more playful. According to the press release, the parade -- led by the Marching Los Alamos Forest Rangers, who will be backburning trash in an attempt to stave off accidental flash fires -- is a way to put people back in touch with their inherent foolishness. The public is invited to march with celebrity look-alikes, including Al Gore, who'll be collecting missing ballots, and Dubya, who'll be handing out tax rebates, but participants are advised to exercise caution, since many of the floats use pyrotechnics (and ride on tires donated from Ford Explorer SUVs). Last year, CNN and Fox affiliate WNYW both showed up to cover the parade, but, of course, found nothing. But what about the people who get manipulated along with the press? "A tear just ran down my leg," jokes Skaggs. "I think it's great that they're there -- the more the merrier! This should be the most attended parade in all of history, and I hope that someday it does become a legally sanctioned parade, and we can actually do it." Is this guy serious?

The 16th Annual April Fools' Day Parade is not on Sunday 1. For more information, visit www.joeyskaggs.com.

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© 2001 Joey Skaggs