The Merry Pranksters And the Art of the Hoax By Mark Dery Sunday, December 23, 1990
Transcribed by Dr. Strangelove Just Say Yes: 415-922-2008
"HAVEN'T YOU EVER WANTED TO PUT YOUR foot through your
television screen?" asked an actor in "media burn," an outdoor spectacle staged in 1975 by the performance art collective Ant Farm. The answer, 15 Years later, is a resounding, "Yes!" Now, a generation of artists who grew up with television are beginning to rebel against it. Following Ant Farm's lead, they are kicking a hole - metaphorically, at least - in the cathode-ray tube.
Some of today's most incendiary artists derive the structure,
style, and subject matter of their art from mass media. Mordantly funny, frighteningly Orwellian and very much a product of the times, their work challenges the image merchants. Moreover, it constitutes a search for truth in the technetronic age, where, increasingly, perception is reality.
These artists are "cultural jammers", exposing the ways in which
corporate and political interests use the media as a tool of behavior modification. Jamming is CB slang for the illegal practice of electronically interrupting radio broadcasts, conversations between fellow hams or the audio portions of television shows. Cultural jamming, by extension, is artistic "terrorism" directed against the information society in which we live.
Negativland, a techno-yippie rock band, assembles bits and
pieces of advertising jingles, commercial voice-overs and news- casts to make "media about media about media," as one of the group's prerecorded voices puts it. The artist Robbie Conal covers urban walls with the Madison Avenue equivalent of Dorian Gray's portrait - grotesque renderings of Oliver North, Edwin Meese and other political figures whose careers have been darkened by an ethical cloud. The billboard provocateur Jerry Johnson borrows smiling faces and gee-whiz phrases from 40's and 50's magazines to create absurdist ads that resemble the pop art of James Rosenquist in style and the punk cartoons of Gary panter in spirit. Joey Skaggs tries to hoodwink journalists into covering his elaborately staged, exaustively researched con jobs.
Mr. Skaggs's art is designed to dramatize the inherent dangers
in a media that, according to its critics, accepts photo ops and buzzwords as meaningful discourse. Two weeks ago, he exposed his latest hoaxes: Comacocoon, a cybernetic vacation service with a promotional letter that promised "complete relaxation while your imagination is guided to the destination of your choice" via anesthesia, subliminal programming and computers; Hair Today offered a ghoulish remedy for baldness- scalp transplants for hairless professionals fed up with "camouflage combing . . . or wishful thinking."
Cultural jamming, like 60's Conceptual art, often produces no
salable residue; most jammers subsidize their art through 9-to-5 jobs. Mr. Skaggs, who supports himself by selling his paintings and lecturing on communications at colleges throughout the country, observes: "What sets media jammers apart from the art world is that our work isn't designed to make money. lt's designed to make a statement."
Gemo redriguez, executive director and chief curator of the
Alterative Museum in Manhattan, offers another perspective. "Some of these media artists are very effective," he says. "Certainly, the idea of guerrilla art, trying to communicate with society at large instead of an elite art group, is timely. ln a sense, these pirate artists are the future. "Unfortunately, some artists who purport to be critiquing the media are actually exploiting it, using it for self-aggrandizement."
While Mr. Redriguez`s assertion may hold true for those whose
work has earned them fame in art circles, most cultural jammers will never know the 15 minutes of celebrity argued by Andy Warhol. Walking a fine line between petty crime and Conceptual art, they often labor undercover to make public statements. Their work owes its impact to the anonymity of the artist and the hit-and-run nature of the art. For these reasons, jammers are loath to predict when and where they will strike.
The San Francisco-based Negativland, for example, is set to
release a 12-inch single in February that will incorporate the foul-mouthed ranting of a radio personality known for his warm- milk-and-cookies demeanor; to reveal its exact nature could result in legal action that might prevent its release. Mr. Conal has just finished a postering blitz in cities across the United States, plastering walls with unsigned paintings that look radically different from his earlier efforts; publicity, says Mr. Conal, is beginning to undermine his potency as a cultural jammer.
Audio Dadaism For the Computer Age
The term cultural jamming was first used by Negativland in 1984
to describe billboard alteration and other underground art that seeks to shed light on the dark side of the computer age. Not exactly a rock band, not quite a theatrical company, Negativeland creates audio Dada whose closest reference point is the Firesign Theater, an avant-garde comedy troupe of the 1970's.
On the cassette "Jamcon '94," a band member observes: "As
awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist. The skillfully reworked billboard . . . directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large."
"Helter Stupid," Negativland's latest record, is a nonpareil act
of cultural jamming, the aural equivalent of a moustache on the Mona Lisa. A raucous collage of newscasts, interviews and musical fragments, it documents an artful hoax perotrated by Negativland on the American media.
ln 1988, the band stumbled on an article about a 15-year-old boy
who butchered his family after an argument, purportedly over the teenager's musical tastes. Inspired, Negativland issued a press release implying that the multiple ax murders were precipitated by "Christianity is Stupid," a Negativland song that marries the fire-spitting sermon of a Pentecostal preacher to crunch rock of saurian ponderousness. In the months that followed, the group granted Interviews and dispatched communiques, reiterating that the connection was based on rumor. Numerous hints were dropped in the hope that observant news hounds would sniff them out. During one interview, a tape loop of a voice chortling "lt's a monstrous joke" could be heard endlessly repeating in the background. Nonetheless, Pulse! magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle and countless other publications digested the group's disinformation, regurgitating it in article form. In the liner notes to "Helter Stupid," the group offers insight into its prank: "Negativland chose to exploit the media's eager appetite for particularly sensational stories by becoming a subject they couldn't resist - the latest version of a ridiculous media cliche that proposes that rock song lyrics instigate murder."
Satiric Portraits Of Power Brokers
Robbie Conal and Jerry Johnson work in a similar vein. Mr. Conal, who lives in Los Angeles, paints bitingly satiric portraits of profiteers and power brokers, adds a punning tag line, runs them off in poster form and, with the aid of volunteers, papers major cities. One work, a cadaverous rendering of the evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, bears the legend "False profit." Another portrays a lipless, prune-faced Ronald Reagan framed by the words "Contra Diction." Recently, Mr. Conal rented a billboard in West Hollywood and adorned it with an image of Senator Jesse Helms looking somewhat disgruntled - understandable in light of the fact that his head was impaled on an artist's palette.
Mr. Conal is a guerrilla semmiotician who asserts that "art galleries are luxury item-stores, like jewelry stores," in which cultural signs and symbols are both bought and sold. With the world as his open-air gallery, he deconstructs popular culture for all to see, unscrambling the media signals with which society is constantly bombarded. "I'm interested in counter-advertising," he says, "using the streamlined sign language of advertising. I combine a stripped-down image with a one-liner to attack politicians and bureaucrats who have abused their power."
Jerry Johnson has been painting ironic murals on a building at
the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Nevins Street in the Boerum Bill section of Brooklyn since 1982. His first depicted a 1940's trio in snazzy attire lounging beside a shiny car, accompanied by the admonishment "Dress right . . . and get a better shake out of life." Smaller lettering informed the viewer that the message was "Courtesy of the President's Council on Appearances."
Completed during Ronald Reagan's first term in office, it
juggled ideas about dressing for success and right-wing politics. "Cash," a 1987 work in which a glassy-eyed woman is shown dreaming of dollar signs and consumer goods, poked fun at the plummeting status of bills and coins in an age of Plastic money. In "plates," from 1985, a chef proffers an egg on a plate. lt is a simple gesture that manages to be political, making points about synthetic food and polystyrene containers.
"I started doing these billboards because l had something to say,
other than what l said from 9 to 5," the artist explains. "I thought, `why not use the existing medium and language in its most classic format to address some of the things going on today?' Billboards are honest. I have real problems with the art world, where someone can paint a painting that makes a condemnatory statement about capitalism and sell it for $80,000. The artist gets rich and the patron sits on the painting until it appreciates, then dumps it. It's so hypocritical, it's ludicrous."
Coping With Information Anxiety
Ludicrousness, seasoned with savage wit and subversive thought in
equal parts, is the tactic used by the Dallas-based Church of the SubGenius to lampoon religious cults, motivational sales programs and other forms of groupthink. Billing itself as an organization for "Scoffers and Blasphemers," the church preaches the gospel according to J. R. (Bob) Dobbs, the smirking, pipe-smoking prophet of sex, sales and slack (slack being a hard-to-define state of Sub-Genius enlightenment best described as a cross between couch potato and ascended master. "Pull the wool over your own eyes," the church's literature exhorts. "Relax in the safety of your own delusions." It's a sardonic send up of a society afflicted with "information anxiety," the post-modern neurosis that results from life lived in a vortex of factoids, trivia and prefab opinions.
Founded in 1979 by lvan Stang, an underground film maker, the
church now claims a paying membership of more than 5,000. Its bible, "Book of the SubGenius" (simon & schuster), is in it's sixth printing, and SubGenuis rallies called Devivals draw large crowds. Clearly, the Church of the SubGenius has struck a chord.
According to Mr. Stang, known to the faithful as Sacred Scribe
No. 27s, the surreal cult is most popular among information addicts involved in desktop publishing and pirate radio. :This never would have happened if it weren`t for xerox machines," he informs. "There`s no telling what will happen years from now, when communications technologies have become cheaper and more sophisticated. l don't think big media is going to take over because small media will always be there. The more they spray, the heartier the cockroaches get."
Sociopolitical Satire As an Art Form
Joey Skaggs - who once convinced United press International
and WNBC-Tv in New York to carry his fraudulent claim that hormones extracted from mutant cockroaches could cure arthritis, acne and radiation poisoning - would surely agree. A conceptual con artist, he is an example of cultural jamming in its purest form.
To Mr. Skaggs, a formally trained painter, sociopolitical
satire is an art. "I started doing hoaxes to point out the inadequacies and dangers of an irresponsible press," he said in an interview in the 1957 book "Franks." "Rather than sticking with oil paint, the media became my medium."
Since 1966, he has been flimflamming members of the fourth
estate. He goes to great lengths, he says, to insure that no laws are broken, no innocent victims hurt, by his acts of ontological sabotage. "l don`t falsify police reports or take money from the public, and I'm absolutely careful not to hurt anyone." Mr. Skaggs Streses. "When I did the roach vitamin-pill hoax and sick people called, willing to spend any amount of money, it broke my heart. l said, `Listen, l`m doing this to illustrate that people who say they have cures for certain diseases are charlatans.' "
In 1976, Mr. Skaggs conceptualized the Cathouse for Dogs, a
canine bordello that offered a "savory selection" of doggie Delilahs, ranging from pedigree (Fifi, the French Poodle) to mutt (Lady the Tramp). The Mayor's office was outraged, the now-defunct SoHo News was incensed, and WABC-TV in New YorK devoted a segment to it that received an Emmy nomination for best news broadcast of the year.
In time, Mr. Skaggs reappeared a the leader of Walk Right!, a
combat booted, black-clad, Guardian Angels meet-Emily Post outfit determined to improve sidewalk etiquette. In an other guise, as Jo-Jo, King of the New York Gypsies, he sported a pair of cardboard insect wings and brandished a sign demanding that gypsy moth be renamed. Many have taken the prankster's bait; in 1982, The New York Times called Mr. Skagg's fictitious organization, Gypsies Against Stereotypical propaganda, "a new civil rights group."
There are those who say that Mr. Skaggs and his ilk are not
artistic agitpropists but sophomoric troublemakers, or worse. Critics aver that media hoaxes are potentially as disruptive as computer viruses; they posit a situation in which the credibility of the news-gathering network has been undermined.
But Stephen Isaacs, associate dean of the Graduate School of
Journalism at Columbia University, suggests otherwise, "When one of these media hoaxers pulls off a stunt, l find it fairly amusing. l don't think it presents a problem. You simply print a corrections Column. When you admit error, it makes you more human. There's also the implication that every other fact in your paper is true."
Thomas J. Colin, managing editor of The Washington Journalism
Review, adds: "From Piltdown Man to fake lottery winners, the media needs to be reminded of its own hubris."
Mr. Skaggs and other jammers are questioning the contemporary
world view at a time when the big picture, for most, is made up of video pixels and Benday dots, of white noise and half-truths. Cultural jamming, on it's most profound level, is about remaking reality.
"The dominant culture utilizes media to promulgate the notion of
the commodity as the highest form of existence," says stuart Ewen, author of the 1988 book "all-consuming Images: The politics of Style in Contemporary Culture." "cultural jammers draw upon the cacophony of fragmentary media images. At the heart of their reassembligns is the hope that there could be another kind of a world, a world where rather than a devaluation of the human in favor of the commodity, there could be an understanding of the commodity in the service of the human."
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