Joey Skaggs: novelty silliness and well-packaged rebellion

Josh Lowe meets Joey Skaggs,the man who prides himself on being able to prank the media over and over again.

 

In July 1976, prankster and satirist Joey Skaggs, calling himself Giuseppe Scaggoli,  appeared before a rabid crowd, dressed in sharp-lapeled finery. He had some unfortunate news: that day’s planned auction of rock star sperm was cancelled due to a mysterious theft. All he could offer in the way of comfort were his assurances that more donations were to be sought as soon as possible. His business, the Celebrity Sperm Bank, only benefited from the publicity. It was inundated with calls from potential clients, and the story of one plucky capitalist’s mission to sell spunk “from the likes of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney” was picked up by the music press and, ultimately, televised on cable and national TV. The only problem? The whole affair was faked. Skaggs, by this time a legend of the New York underground, chalked up another victory over the bullshitters.

Skaggs still looks every inch the guerrilla culture warrior when we meet. Decked out in a hefty leather waistcoat and black Levis and sporting a wild wizard’s beard, he greets me first with a handshake and then a hug, booming a hello in gravelly tones. Yet Skaggs is no spaced-out crusty. His welcome gift to me – a Joey Skaggs brand “Bullshit Detector” watch-cum-alarm – is a piece of novelty silliness designed by someone with a keen sense of the modern consumer’s appetite for well packaged rebellion. Skaggs’s work has been so successful because he understands the systems he exploits and is comfortable working within them.

This much should be obvious, in any case, from the reason behind Skaggs’s first major appearance in London since 1995 (when he hoaxed UK media in the guise of experimental therapist and self-styled “Lion King” Baba Wa Simba). This week, Skaggs will speak at ad industry conference Advertising Week Europe.

Skaggs is aware of the contradictory aspects of this. “It’s kinda interesting to be invited to this conference. I think Mark [Borkowski, a publicist instrumental in bringing him to the event] has the biggest pair of balls.” However, he isn’t interested in laying into the ad men and women he’ll be appearing before: “I can’t really say that I’m the fox in the henhouse, because I’m with some brilliant creative minds.” He says he doesn’t plan to preach to his audience, instead preferring to present them with “an entertaining history lesson” and wait and see what conclusions they draw.

Skaggs’s relative ease with the ad industry might stem from his belief in the value of propaganda as an artistic medium. “The reality is that what I am doing is selling something, because everyone is selling something. You’re selling a product, you’re selling a service. What I’m trying to sell is a way of looking at things.” The ideas he concocts are persistent in the way the best advertising is. Cleaning brand Vanish, for instance, recently ran into a dispute with Skaggs as to which of them had created the “world’s largest bra” after Skaggs challenged their record with a bra he hung across the US Treasury building on Wall St in 1969. What distinguishes Skaggs’s work, he says, is its intent. His performances are often political, and always intellectually provoking.

Yet he is uncompromising in other areas. Skaggs’s best known recent works are his annual April Fools’ Day Parades – chaotic affairs held in New York’s Washington Square park, where revellers crown a King of Fools from a parade of lookalikes. Last year, the crowd chose Mitt Romney, and figures appearing in this April’s parade will include Lil Wayne and Chuck Norris. His last parade took “Occupy Washington Square Park” as its theme, though he isn’t associated with the Occupy movement in any deeper sense than a sharing of certain ideals. “I’m all behind making the kind of changes that I think they represent, it’s just that I think organisationally they fight amongst themselves,” he says. “When I do a prank, I tell my volunteers... I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page, because I don’t want you to bring an agenda that is different from what I am attempting to do.”

The central function of the parade is to allow Skaggs to unleash his rage upon individuals. “During the course of the year I have my asshole file,” he says. “I either clip out articles or write notes or print something from the internet and stick it in the folder, and a month or so before it’s time for the parade I construct and organise what’s happening. I try to keep it limited to one page because it’s virtually impossible, there are so many assholes.”

In this, it is distinct from his media pranks, whose targets are systemic. Most of his stunts rely for their impact on the false and often hilarious press coverage they generate. The Baba Wa Simba stunt resulted in a particularly excellent piece on London Tonight in which a bespectacled ITV reporter finds himself splayed on the floor next to “Baba”, releasing his repressed trauma in a primal howl. It is a signature move of Skaggs’s to send imposters along to interviews, even where the resultant pieces are celebratory.

He talks about himself almost as a campaigner for accurate reportage. “If you make those kinds of stupid mistakes, you don’t do your job well, you fucked up,” he says. When I ask whether hoaxing has got harder in the age of Google, he unleashes a demonic cackle: “Is that really a serious question?” He is, however, dismissive of press regulation when I bring up Leveson. Those calling for press regulation, or alterations to the First Amendment in the US, “go into my asshole category. Gee, if I allow that to happen, they’re gonna throw me in jail.”

While I can’t help but feel that there is something a little too gleeful in his reaction to press mistakes, the uncertainty Skaggs sows, and the frantic fact checking it leads to, is powerful. To interview Skaggs is to be reminded of one’s personal responsibility to readers as distinct from the wider system in which one works, and that can be no bad thing.

As our interview draws to a close, Skaggs cagily suggests that he is planning a new prank for London. He is guarded on the details, but asks politely that the New Statesman not use a recent photo to illustrate this piece in order to keep his visual profile in the UK as low as possible. As for me, he has just one request. “If you recognise me... call me first, OK?” he says. His eyes twinkle as he fixes me with the full force of his jester’s grin: “I won’t fool you.”

Joey Staggs as Dr Josef Gregor, the world leading entomologist famed for his "discovery" of a cockroach hormone than can cure all common ailments known to man. Photograph: Joey Staggs Archive

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder