Espai d'Art Contemporani de Castellon, Spain (EACC Museum)
Exhibition Catalog Text
Opening October 4, 2002

By Vicky A. Clark
Independent curator/critic
Adjunct Associate Professor of Art
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA

Attack Theater: Joey Skaggs confronts art, violence, and the media

Visual and information overload clutters our lives; just a decade ago, for example, 41 million photographs were taken every day, and that doesn’t take into account digital and/or moving images. Both Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol understood the power of the media in the 1960s when television began to make inroads, including the introduction of a 15-minute evening newscast in the States. We moved from this fairly modest beginning to the explosion of 24/7 news on tv and the information highway in the blink of an eye. History is being constructed from these sources; many of us remember things like the assassination of JFK or man walking on the moon from television images that were replayed over and over. Yet we look to that coverage with nostalgia after the feeding frenzy following the death of Princess Di or the media circus at the OJ Simpson case. The media consumed and constructed that case, feeding the audience every minute detail, as news programming became infotainment, blurring fact and fiction in the process. I, like many, feel like the character in a cartoon by Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who shares a moment of silence on the anniversary of 9/11 by turning off his television.

This past year has intensified the questions about media coverage and influence; I don’t think that a single day has passed without a reference to the events of "the day the world changed." Despite media overkill–which included very few reports from other countries–have things really changed? Did the violent terrorist attacks shock us so much that we have put aside our differences to achieve understanding and world peace (just like every Miss America and Miss Universe urges)? Have we learned anything from the miles of footage and millions of words, or are we the same, self-centered, navel-gazers we were before 9/11?

We are at an interesting point in our history, where Western systems of thought are becoming increasingly suspect, unable to process and understand the concept of reality, much less reality itself. Intellectual history is changing to incorporate different ways to process ideas, history, experience, and feelings. We are starting to blur and break through boundaries, to be comfortable with change, to reveal that binary oppositions only exist in abstract thought and that we are faced with multiple realities, multiple truths, multiples views, and complex interrelationships among all of the above. These ideas are seeping out of the ivory tower into the larger world, especially in popular culture, but they are not having any impact in the halls of power. If anything, our "leaders" continue to press the very issues that led to violence and terrorism in the first place.

What does this have to do with art? Enter Joey Skaggs. He is a man who is an artist who is a social activist who is a hoaxster who is a protester who is a prankster who is a media star who is….He is a thorn in our side, always pressing our buttons. He is the comic relief; he is the figure offstage in Greek drama, giving the audience details too upsetting to be presented on stage. He is Sisyphus, continually rolling that boulder back up the hill. He is the sidekick in the comics, trying to make the superhero see the nuances involved in the battle between good and evil to maintain the status quo. No, he is the superhero, the new, multifaceted model for our complex and confused times

An agent provocateur, Skaggs uses every possible tool to make us stop and think. His primary medium is the media itself, that insatiable octopus that reaches out to gather in every bit of information before predigesting it for us. Its consumptive capacity is greater than anything we can imagine or quantify. Yet the media rarely gets it right, and its information management is dangerous and damaging.

So back to Joey Skaggs, who does combine art and activism. He infiltrates the media–a videotape of his media appearances should be part of every show he’s in because by becoming part of the media machine, he frequently works outside the environs of the museum. His pranks and hoaxes–a cathouse for dogs, a roach vitamin cure, a portaconfessional, and theme park-like cemeteries–take many forms. Skaggs obfuscates, confuses, and disseminates misinformation as he shows how gullible people really are, especially those in the news industry who should know better.

Most people respect and believe supposed authority figures or indiscriminately value information, especially on television or the Internet. Skaggs, however, manipulates the media so easily and so often, beating them at their own game and revealing how they knowingly or unknowingly manipulate information to create "reality" and "truth."

The media uses machine-produced images to impress us with validity and veracity, when in actuality, they are dealing with verisimilitude. Photographs are not impartial documents; the photographer chooses a subject and a point of view and can manipulate the image, and videotapes do not show us what really happened. Matthew Brady moved bodies to make his Civil War images more powerful; the Rodney King videotape was interpreted in contradictory fashions, and the Hollywood creation Wag the Dog showed how easy it is to take advantage of technology.

Artists have shown that images promote stereotypes and that it is dangerous to accept them at face value. Barbara Kruger used advertising techniques, Cindy Sherman used photography, and Martha Rosler collaged war photographs onto picture windows in magazine layouts of the perfect home to deconstruct the ideology of common images. Christian Boltanski, Jeff Wall, and Sophie Calle operated at the boundary between fact and fiction. The Whitney Museum of American Art included George Holliday’s videotape of the Rodney King beating in its 1993 Biennial. The effectiveness of their strategies, especially as they tried to effect social change, belongs to the debate about art versus social activism, a debate that should really be a conversation about art and social activism.

Here in Spain, in a show about the relationship between art and the media, Joey Skaggs once again confronts an audience with uneasy thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Someone has been stealing the marble blocks from the museum’s facade. Skaggs intervenes by setting up barricades with signs in several languages: "Attention: This is an Art Attack zone. Criminals caught destroying art or property will be shot. Survivors will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law." The same message is broadcast in the area, and a surveillance camera has been installed. Other speakers add sounds of mayhem: gunshots, cries and shouts of victims and onlookers. So, visitors to the museum face unexpected violence as they approach. How will they react to the threat of being in the middle of some kind of gunfire?

Inside the museum, this unsettling experience becomes, at first, neutralized by its presence in the gallery itself. The view from the outside surveillance camera is projected on to a videogame screen which has a 45-caliber hand gun that allows the participant to "shoot" the people outside, also activating the exterior sound component. Gallery spectators can see the "action" projected on the wall of the gallery.

The issues raised in this piece are many. At a basic level, the piece is about violence. Where do we experience violence and how do we react to it? Despite statistics, most of us do not experience violence firsthand; instead our experience is mediated. We see military action in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East on television; we witness assault and murder at the movies and on tv; videogames simulate battles, setting up violent situations to be negotiated. How does this distancing affect us? And what happens when we see certain powerful images, from Bosnia to the planes hitting the twin towers, time after time after time? Does the process of distancing and mediation sanitize violence just like we have ghettoized sickness, waste, slaughter,etc, by removing them from our daily lives as much as possible?

Skaggs gives his audience several chances to make a decision about their level of participation and engagement. What will each individual do when they react to the sounds of mayhem outside? Will they ignore the threat, just as so many walk by crimes in the city? Or will they band together to face danger? What do these reactions say about our attitudes about the role of the individual within a community (Sartre’s existentialism revisited)?

Inside, viewers can decide whether or not to play the videogame, which simulates sniper fire, terrorism, and murder. Once again, the distancing factor comes into play as players can participate in violence at a remove. Skaggs also raises the question of responsibility by allowing people to watch someone play the game. Are those spectators equally responsible for the violent behavior of the specific player; are we all responsible for the actions taken by a group or government?

Obviously ideas about control are raised here, and the use of technology hints at the ever increasing role it plays in our lives. While tracking systems are not new–social security numbers, concentration camp numbers, for example–they have become more and more insidious. We have the ability to monitor every move on the Internet; we can log credit card purchases to establish buying patterns; all kinds of information about an individual, from former addresses to medical, financial and even FBI records can be accessed on the web. All of this information can be traded and shared, bought and sold.

How information is presented affects how it is received, as Skaggs has shown in his 30-year history of actions. Here he installs signs on barricades to reinforce the authoritative voice promising persecution and prosecution to those vandalizing the museum. Do people believe that the museum and the local authorities would shoot those who are stealing the marble? The possibility makes just enough sense to be believable, and it is reinforced by the language and appearance of the barricade signs.

Surveillance cameras are now everywhere from ATM machine locations to shop entrances to subway stations. The quickness with which law enforcement obtained photos of the 9/11 hijackers from security cameras shows how our movements can be tracked and recorded. The potential for surveillance will only increase in the future with computers that can identify individuals by scanning the eye and scientists who can map, and change, our DNA. Is anything safe?

There is a sense that Big Brother is watching everyone everywhere for the good of the whole. But who is watching Big Brother? And who is Big Brother? We once thought that it was a small unit in a science fiction novel, but now most people in Europe and the States would think that CBS (or BBC, etc) is Big Brother for they are the network that airs Big Brother, the reality tv show. This brings us back to the beginning, to the general questions about reality: if Big Brother and Survivor and the Mole and Anna Nicole Smith and the Ozbornes are reality tv, what is reality?

Skaggs asks the big questions in Art Attack. Thankfully he doesn’t pontificate and provide all the answers. Like so many instigators, he makes us think in new and different ways. As he stated in an interview with Paul L. Maliszewski: "I called these [his hoaxes] my plausible but non-existent realities….The issues of my performances vary, but most of the questions buried in the work remain the same: What do we believe? Why do we believe it? This is true whether we’re talking about questioning the authority of the media or questioning deeper personal beliefs, such as political, religious, moral, or ethical concerns."