By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“Death Got You Down? At Last an Alternative!” read a small ad in a March 1999 edition of the L.A. Weekly. Those curious enough to investigate the accompanying URL (www.finalcurtain.com) arrived at the home page of Final Curtain, a.k.a. Investors Real Estate Development, a company proposing a chain of memorial parks where the grave markers were pre-designed by the occupants as “both tomb and eternal exhibit of their most personally meaningful work.” The deceased-to-be were encouraged to be creative, to design interactive kinetic displays in the spirit of a theme park. Final Curtain even offered a time-share option, where the remains and their monument would be shipped around the globe, from one Final Curtain park to another, in perpetuity.
The Web site also announced a Monument Design Scholarship Program for artists. Dozens of entries were posted, ranging from Kim Markegard’s 10-by-10-foot dance floor and jukebox (“an outlet for enemies and adversaries to express their feelings for me . . . for my loved ones, to allow them to celebrate my escape from this world”) to the Ruschaesque simplicity of Nick Gaetano’s blue neon “Nick Is Dead” signage. Other artists proposed live video feeds of their decomposing corpse, giant Etch-a-Sketches or Ant Farms filled with cremation ashes, or scrolling computer screens of the loved one’s collected writings that would gradually slow down and collapse as people stopped visiting the grave. Artists whose memorials were not selected for company sponsorship retained the option of selling “futures” to subsidize their projects. The prototypical Final Curtain theme park is explicated in detail — shaped like an artist’s palette and riddled with gift shops, theme restaurants (including Dante’s Grill, where one can dine on Cajun and Southern American cuisine while watching wax figures of art critics roast in a simulacral inferno) and restrooms, each equipped with “a perpetually flowing drinking fountain of nondenominational holy water.”
Fueled by more ads and a flurry of press releases, the story was picked up and faithfully repeated by newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, and the Internet. Pundits from Mother Jones, the New York Daily News, the Boston Herald, The Village Voice, the Scripps wire service, Landscape Architecturemagazine, Yahoo!, NPR, Fox-TV and even the L.A. Times seized on the story for its obvious entertainment value and built-in critique of the American Way of Death. The Web site received tens of thousands of hits. Venture capitalists called looking to get in on the ground floor. Death-care professionals made contact, anxious about jeopardizing the status quo, but excited about the fresh idea.
On Mother’s Day, 2000, over a year after the initial press releases were mailed, Final Curtain was revealed to be the latest hoax by Joey Skaggs, inveterate media prank artist. Skaggs, who has been staging increasingly elaborate hoaxes for more than 30 years, enlisted the help of dozens of artists, writers, designers and architects to fabricate a convincing media presence (the Web page, press releases, nationwide advertising, even a dummy “office” and phones manned by Michael Varley, managing director; Stuart MacLelland, marketing director; and Paul Corey, associate marketing director) all played by Skaggs himself. Like a Surrealist guerrilla wing of media watchdog group FAIR, Skaggs’ work amounts to a scathing critique of contemporary mass culture, revealing the often slipshod mechanisms by which much “news” is generated and credited as objective reality.
It’s no surprise that Skaggs has few friends in the mainstream media, or that the revelation of his hoaxes receives less media attention than the original stories themselves. Disgruntled and embarrassed news sources routinely refuse the artist permission to display or reproduce the fruits of his labor. Neither is Skaggs, who started as a painter, taken seriously by the art world from which he emerged. His first “performance” was the crude but effective Easter Sunday parade piece of 1966–1969, in which the artist annually dragged a grisly assemblage crucifix through the streets of New York chased by an angry mob and the police. He gradually refined his techniques of manipulating the media, mastering the art of the press release and conference, fake letterheads, the circumvention of fact-checking safeguards, and the protocols for accessing talk-show and other broadcast forums.
A summary of his prank-works alone could easily fill a feature article (readers interested in full disclosure should visit the “Retro” section of Skaggs’ own Web page at www.joeyskaggs.com), but some of the highlights include the seminal Hippie Bus Tour to Queens, which involved a busload of freaks (including Yayoi Kusama) turning the tables on rubbernecking suburban tourists; Cathouse for Dogs, which resulted in an Emmy-nominated, never-retracted news story by ABC and a subpoena from the attorney general; Windsurfing From Hawaii to California, Skaggs’ attempt to become the first person to cross the Pacific Ocean on a sailboard; Comacocoon, a medical anesthetic and subliminal-programming alternative to dangerous foreign vacations; and The Solomon Project, a distributed computer program designed to eliminate the need for juries and judges from the American jurisprudence system, starting with a much-ballyhooed guilty verdict for O.J. Simpson. All these events generated copious media attention, concern from various levels of state, and close to no coverage in the art press.