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A look at "Joey Skaggs: Fish Condos"

By Gary Wien


originally published: 02/10/2022

A look at "Joey Skaggs: Fish Condos"

Joey Skaggs: Fish Condos by Judy Drosd and Joey Skaggs is a wonderful film that is the fifth in a series called “Joey Skaggs: Satire and Art Activism, 1960s to the Present and Beyond.” The film details how Skaggs got the idea to spice up fish aquariums with the use of doll furniture. He originally did it as a satire on the world-turning condo, but the public loved them and they soon became a viable revenue source for the artist.

The film is one of six to be presented by the New Jersey Film Festival as part of its Short Program #2 on Friday, February 11. The films showcase the human experience from around the world. Films include ¡Llámame Chinita! by Stacy Chu; Threads of Desire by Bianca Di Marco; Covid Crusader: The Carla Brown Story by Randy Slavin; Memory Builds the Monument by Isaac Yowman; Just Like Water by Manos Triantafillakis; and Joey Skaggs: Fish Condos by Judy Drosd and Joey Skaggs;. The six film package is available to rent from 12:00am on February 11 through midnight.

We reached out to Judy Drosd to learn more about the film.

This is the 5th in the series about Joey Skaggs and it plays like a chapter in the book.  Do all of the segments in the series work like that? Will the complete series be a full-length film or more like a television series?

I'm as curious about this as you are. There are currently five short films in the "Joey Skaggs Satire and Art Activism, 1960s to the Present and Beyond" oral history series, but there will eventually be more than 40. 

Each film is like an episode, or webisode, and I think the best way to distribute them will become evident when we're a bit further along. 



 
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These are stories of Joey's exploits and adventures as an artist whose work for the most part is unsanctioned, often outrageous, and takes place live in real life. Starting back in the 60s, Joey began collecting as much media coverage of the work as he could. Because it's ephemeral, if he hadn't, people might not believe his stories today.

Now, as a result of his efforts to collect, protect and preserve evidence of his work, he's sitting on a treasure trove of culturally fascinating materials. I manage the collection, which is housed in six climate-controlled buildings and includes print, video and audio tapes, sculptures, paintings, props, costumes and ephemera, as well as many terabytes of digitized materials.

In 2020, thinking about the future disposition of the archive, as all artists do at some point in life, Joey expressed interest in creating an oral history series to condense the materials into a legacy that can be easily shared. So, I sat him in front of a window and turned on the camera. The stories flowed.

The beauty is that they're short bite-size segments people can watch whenever and in whatever order they'd like. Information about the series is here

Do you think the fish condos idea would have grabbed the public's (and media's) attention the way it did if it had not started in New York City? Did the city's housing issues play a large role in its success?

It's really interesting to ponder exactly what caught the public's imagination at the time. It probably was a combination of the hilarious juxtaposition of tropical fish swimming in human habitats and the social issues the Fish Condos represented – the gentrification of New York City and the fears of what climate change would bring in the future. As Joey said, "Fish will need better homes." 

I imagine there would have been similar interest had he been in Chicago or LA or San Francisco, however New York was, and still is, the epicenter of mass media as well as a mecca for art and creativity. As you see in the film, the Fish Condo aquatic sculptures not only traveled the world on TV and in art exhibitions (actually many more than are shown), but they remain as relevant today as they were when he began making them in the 80s.    

 

I thought you did a good job of presenting the magazine covers and stories.  Is it a challenge to make text and static images like those exciting in a piece that includes a lot of live action footage?

Thank you. I think it helps when there is a disbelief and wow factor to what you're showing. This is true for a lot of Joey's work. He's always full of surprises.  

Also, music, whether it's rhythmic, funny, or inspiring, helps create a sense of motion for static images. We're enormously grateful to composer Daniel Pemberton (Being the Ricardos, The Afterparty, The Rescue, Steve Jobs, Birds of Prey, Motherless Brooklyn, Molly's Game, Spiderman into the Spider-verse, Parts 1 & 2, etc.). He didn't score the film, but he gave us access to some of his previously created compositions. His music truly enhances this film.

A look at "Joey Skaggs: Fish Condos"

Did it take a long time to find the tv footage or did Joey have them in his archives? Was it difficult to get the rights to use the footage?

Amazingly, everything, except for a handful of images found on the internet, came from Joey's archive. Regarding the rights, thankfully, there is the "fair use" exception in documentary filmmaking. When the work is used for commentary, criticism or parody, it is generally protected from a claim of copyright infringement.

I did a deep dive into this when I was co-producing "Art of the Prank", Andrea Marini's feature documentary about Joey's work that came out in 2017. The film was dependent on archival footage for which it was impossible to clear rights. Not only do some of the TV shows no longer exist, but networks like CNN, which was fooled by Joey's satirical hoaxes at least five times, have in the past refused to grant rights to other networks doing follow-up stories. They don't want to be further embarrassed. Thankfully, the copyrighted material throughout that film was legally confirmed to be fair use.

 



 
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Finally, I think my favorite accessory in the fish tanks is the tiny fish tank in one of them and my favorite concept idea was the sushi bar.  What is your favorite accessory and concept?

I have to say, I'm partial to the hospital where the sick fish are attended by miniature nurses and doctors in lab coats with clipboards.

A look at "Joey Skaggs: Fish Condos"



Joey Skaggs: Fish Condos is part of the NJ Film Festival Short Program #2 on Friday, February 11 - one of my favorite days in the spring festival. It includes six films that showcase the human experience from around the world including ¡Llámame Chinita! by Stacy Chu; Threads of Desire by Bianca Di Marco; Covid Crusader: The Carla Brown Story by Randy Slavin; Joey Skaggs: Fish Condos by Judy Drosd and Joey Skaggs; Memory Builds the Monument by Isaac Yowman; and Just Like Water by Manos Triantafillakis. The six film package is available to rent from 12:00am on February 11 through midnight. Click here for more information or to purchase the package.



Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.





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