Hoax in the machine

Done right, it's a work of art; done wrong, it becomes reality.

Final Curtain was a hoax. I know because I helped perpetrate it.

FINAL CURTAIN was to be a chain of theme-park cemeteries for artists. “Death got you down?” we asked. “Design your own enduring monument—your last artistic statement!” We promised, as I wrote on the site’s front page, a “jewel-like setting” and plenty of touristy fun for the whole family. The Final Curtain chain of memorial/theme parks was designed to celebrate “creative souls” while pulling in the tourist dollars.

Only it didn’t exist—not as a physical place or even as a real estate developer’s fantasy. Final Curtain was a media-jamming art piece existing only online and in press releases, brought to you by Joey Skaggs and 50 or so of his friends. And we spent almost two years of our lives doing this and not getting caught, even by—especially by—people who ought to have caught us. We did an unreal thing, but we did three very real things that are more important. The unreal thing got tons of media coverage. For the real things, read on.

JOEY SKAGGS has been staging hoaxes—to lampoon the media, to lampoon the culture, but never to make money—for 34 years. Some hoaxes are huge and take place over the course of years; some involve little more than a press release. Final Curtain began during the summer of 1998. Our cemetery architect is Parisian; our legal and business advisers have extremely respectable “straight jobs”; one of our leading memorialists designs (among other things) postage stamps. The talent in a project like FC is real, even if our beautiful monuments will never exist in New York or Tennessee or any of the other locales FC claimed to be developing.

Another real thing is the money involved—none coming in, plenty going out. Because this was about hoaxing, not defrauding, all investment offers (and Final Curtain got ’em) were declined. And because the hoax/art takes place in the media—in print, on TV, and online—it’s not for sale or even for repeat viewing: Skaggs has hundreds of hours of video footage documenting his work and almost no chance of getting clearances to exhibit it. He is, as he puts it, an extremely censored artist, lacking control over the medium in which his work operates. And hoaxes cost money; stationery, phone lines, and press-clipping services don’t come cheap. Skaggs spent several thousand dollars on this project.

Final Curtain existed as a Web site, a mail drop, and a phone number. It got coverage worldwide. Is it fair to expect a journalist in, say, Germany to hop a plane and head for Jersey? Did the Web make this hoax particularly irresistible? Skaggs says no: “The Net is just one more medium.” Reportorial skills, when used, are still equal to the challenge.

SO HOW WAS YOUR average journalist, not necessarily the brightest bulb in the chandelier to begin with and invariably on deadline, supposed to figure it out? Skaggs suggests that a diligent reporter could have figured it out by doing the same kind and amount of research that an investor would (or ought to). A call to the New Jersey Better Business Bureau would have shown no Final Curtain corporation registered in the state. Driving by the address of the “offices” would have revealed it to be a suburban house. Skaggs’ picture is in one of the monuments, for god’s sake.

But online hoaxes come to life in peculiar ways. One of the Net’s most notorious “hoaxes” was ourfirsttime.com, in which it was claimed that two virgins would deflower each other on live Netcam. Within a couple of days the whole thing was revealed as a self-promotional stunt couched in an “abstinence lesson” couched in voyeurism. The perpetrator, who did all this to sell a screenplay, is currently grappling in court with Seattle’s own porn maven Seth Warshavsky; the screenplay continues apace. OurFirstTime was less a hoax than a scam, notes Skaggs: “It’s all just part of the movie script. Most of these people are doing this for a buck.”

And then there’s P602, an e-mail-borne quasi-hoax that leapt from myth to reality. You may have gotten the e-mail about Congressman “Tony Schnell” introducing “P602,” a bill allowing the FCC to tax Net access. There is no Schnell in Congress, and “P602” isn’t proper bill nomenclature, and any citizen with a telephone and the slightest degree of curiosity could have figured that out. (In fact, we debunked “P602” six months ago.) But just last week Congress, while acknowledging that there is no Tony Schnell among their number, nonetheless introduced legislation to forbid the FCC to tax Net access by the minute. Problem solved, except there was no problem.

THE SIGNS WERE THERE for journalists who doubted Final Curtain. But they didn’t. Reporters who have met Skaggs didn’t recognize his picture on the site as “Joseph Sullivan,” ironically one of the most written-about of the 30 monuments. Reporters who ought to know how to vet questionable companies weren’t immune; one of the burned writes for the business section of the LA Times. Alternative publications got nipped; this paper didn’t take the hook, but the Village Voice (our sister publication) did. And fact-checkers caught the mice in the corner but not the elephant in the middle of the room. Among the most touching items from Skaggs’ voluminous files is the series of e-mails from a fact-checker at Mother Jones confirming that one memorialist did in fact write the blurb beneath the image of his monument and that a certain piece of text would definitely appear on the physical memorial: a giant neon sign announcing that “Nick Is Dead.”

By the time the first press releases made the rounds last fall my own monument was on the site. I expected to hear from at least one colleague asking how I’d gotten mixed up in this, and I wrestled with the ethics of it all. I worried for nothing; no one asked. One close friend only checked with me months later, when the hoax was revealed—”saw your submission in there when I wrote it up . . . did you know?”

In case you’re wondering, I wouldn’t have said I knew. Part of participating in Final Curtain was agreeing to keep my mouth shut until it was time to reveal the hoax. Had I been asked, I would have changed the subject or told them to check the Web site again. Or I would have kept my mouth shut, which is where Maura comes in.

FINAL CURTAIN has three true things about it. One is the effort put into it. Two is the money it’ll never make, because it is neither a publicity stunt nor a random, authorless action. Three is the people who believed and by believing made it relevant.

Art resonates; that’s how you know it’s art and not just more marketing. As Skaggs puts it, “A fine artist creates his or her own problems and tries to solve them; a commercial artist solves other people’s problems for money.” Final Curtain wasn’t intended to make money; it was intended to draw attention to two issues—the media’s wicked ways, as we’ve seen, and the death industry.

A couple of weeks ago I got a letter from “Maura” wanting to interview me about my monument. She wasn’t a reporter; she was doing her master’s thesis on social art, specifically on FC. With no Final Curtain parks to visit, she decided to contact individual artists through the site.

We heard from a lot of real people during FC. We got fan mail, flame mail, Jesus freaks, e-business spam, and one guy (I loved him) who said that “even if it’s a joke I would put my money behind it,” voicing both more suspicion and more appreciation than most press, who tended to be either appalled or derisive.

At least that’s how they were for the record. Journalists try, subconsciously or otherwise, to reflect the views of their supposed audience. Our culture is entering into a national debate about death and the funeral industry—how we deal with it, how expensive it is, and what we talk about when we talk about remembering the dead. Much of the debate takes place in the media, which means that journalists who write about it are part of the debate by virtue of the tone they choose. Skaggs developed Final Curtain to make a point about this debate through art, for likely the same reasons Maura chose FC as the linchpin of her master’s.

But hoaxing the press is one thing; messing with a grad student is simply cruel. Final Curtain was about to enter its third year; it was time to pull the plug, tell the world (and Maura), and invite the press to admit they’d been had.

And so we did. The press, however, did not. A partial roster of hoaxees includes AP, Reuters, the Boston Herald, Scripps-Howard, NPR, and over 90 more. As I write this, I know of three outlets covering the unveiling of the hoax—us, Salon, and Wired. Most of the rest aren’t returning Skaggs’ calls; their readers and listeners will never hear this information corrected, much less a discussion of what Final Curtain meant.

But Final Curtain lives on. Just last week, info@finalcurtain.com received a message from Harper’s magazine. They’d like to cover this “very unique project”—meaning FC. Could someone please call next week?

Skaggs sent Harper’s a copy of this week’s unveiling press release. I’m just positive they’ll get back to him.

Read the LA Weekly’s feature story surrounding the Final Curtain hubbub, Doug Harvey’s Pranks and Beans.

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