The American godfather of pranks on the media is Joey Skaggs, who has been implementing his imaginative assault on media deceptiveness, political deceptiveness, and casual complacency/received wisdom for over three decades. In the tradition of Alfred Jarry, the founder of Pataphysics, Joey has been campaigning for media literacy and the necessity for a permanently skeptical attitude. Interview by V.Vale.
JOEY SKAGGS: I created the first sexual, Virtual Reality hoax on the Internet.
VALE: Really? Tell us about that.
JS: It was called ‘SEXONIX.’ In 1993, I had a booth at an ‘inventors’ show in Toronto. I had a banner made that said ‘SEXONIX,’ and sent out a provocative press release to the Canadian media describing my new enterprise. I said that I had six ‘sex pods,’ an age requirement, a health requirement (no heart conditions), and was promoting new software whereby you could experience a sensational, sensual fantasy.
On opening day there were lines of people waiting to get into my booth, which was empty. I had an announcement put out that I had been busted at the Canadian border, and that $300,000 of my hardware and software had been confiscated. Next I sent out a press release blasting the ‘repressive policies of the Canadian government,’ and began doing postings on the Well, an early Internet BBS, under the name ‘Joseph Skaggs, PhD.’
On my Internet posting I explained my plight and asked for help in retrieving my equipment. People responded, blasting the Canadian government for their censorship. But someone finally said, ‘Wait a minute, Joseph Skaggs — isn’t this the guy who did the ‘Cathouse for Dogs’ prank?’ This was before pop-up ads, banner ads and the corporate invasion of the Net, when the early users thought the Internet was their sacred space and that whatever was said on the Internet was ‘real.’ One of the Well users was an investigative journalist. He made it his mission to follow the trail, to get to the truth. But when he called Canadian government officials, he could not work his way through the bureaucracy, which I knew would be the case. So the hoax continued.
As a result of the press releases, I got a call from a Canadian television show: ‘We’ve heard about what happened to you, and we’re really upset with our government’s policies. We’re doing a show on Virtual Reality, and would like to include you. Do you have anything you can send us?’ I said, ‘Well, the government confiscated everything, but I still have a commercial about SEXONIX.’ They said, ‘Send it.’
I enlisted computer-animator friends and quickly put together a video commercial featuring a cartoon penis having sex with a cartoon vagina. As the penis is pumping away inside the vagina, they morph into this surreal sixties psychedelic explosion of multi-colored flowers. Finally, when the penis ejaculates, the company’s name, ‘SEXONIX’ is formed out of sperm-like letters. Other graphics were fabricated, like a hand connected to some wires moving a body and footage swiped from the movie Lawnmower Man. The Canadian TV show fell for it and used it in their hour-long show. They interviewed me and I said something like, ‘Virtual sex is masturbation of the mind.’
V: You were riding the wave of social change. As J.G. Ballard said, ‘Sex times technology equals the future.’
JS: I also believe that revelation helps bring about social change, and that’s what a prank does. It allows someone to believe in an illusion, and when the prank is revealed, a person’s consciousness changes . . . hopefully…