Friday, February 10, 2006

The Art of the Con

"February 26, 2000

Dear Mr. Van Strad,

Please excuse me if I have misspelled your name. It was difficult to understand on our answering machine.

Unfortunately, [the painting you expressed interest in acquiring] has been sold.

I have been trying to reach you since we received your first call regarding [the piece in question]. I tried to contact you continually, at different times of the day, but the number you left on the machine was one that never rang through. All I would get is a recording of a woman's voice saying that the 'number you have reached is either busy or you have entered an incorrect number.' This always happened before it rang.

I am faxing this reply to you now because the number you left this time doesn't seem to take a voice message.

If I can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to call me.

Best regards,

[X], Co-director of SoHo Gallery"

In the fall of 1999, when I first moved to New York City, I found work as a preparator and jack-of-all-trades in an art gallery that I'll call SoHo Gallery. I liked the job well enough, but the daily routine lost its luster by the five month mark. No matter how many paintings I framed, crates I packed, or lights I changed, the job seemed ever more tedious. Something had to be done.

The answer to my work woes presented itself on a typical Saturday night in early 2000. I was hanging out at a friend's apartment in the East Village, drinking beer and bullshitting, when conversation turned to my SoHo Gallery job and the exhibition then on display. Knowing how frustrated I'd been with work, a friend suggested that we prank call the gallery.

Enter Alexander von Stradtt, an eccentric, European art collector. This impressive man, known for his generous spirit and colorful presentation, stopped by SoHo Gallery during an art buying trip to New York City and Los Angeles. One of the paintings on display - by a now well-known artist/illustrator who shall remain anonymous here - caught his eye. von Stradtt was enamored of the work, but felt that it was missing that special something, that je ne sais quoi. Distracted, or perhaps lost in thought, he left the gallery without introducing himself to the dealers. He didn't even sign the registry.

One week later, on a particularly blustery Saturday evening, von Stradtt attended a grand party at a mansion in Prague, Czech Republic. Still preoccupied with the painting he had seen at SoHo Gallery, he made his way to an alcove, where he could only just be heard over the din, and placed a call to information. Moments later, he was connected with the gallery. Because it was such a late hour, even in New York, von Stradtt was forced to leave a message identifying himself and conveying his interest in the piece. Though I do not recollect von Stradtt's exact wording, the thrust of the message is below.
"Hello, this is Alexander von Stradtt calling. I am an established collector and I recently saw a painting in your gallery which I am very interested in acquiring. [Here, von Stradtt named and described the piece.] I do, however, have one request...a request that may initially seem rather unorthodox. I would gladly pay twice the asking price, maybe more, but I will need your staff, or the artist himself, to spray paint a purple 'Q' on the center of the painting. I will be in touch. Good evening to you."
And so a drunken goof, a prank call with a brief back story, was the beginning of the Alexander von Stradtt saga.

On Monday morning, when I arrived at work, the gallery staff were already abuzz with talk of a mysterious caller and his absurd request. I stood alongside the gallery owners/dealers as they replayed the message for me, repeatedly, exchanging baffled looks and shaking their heads slowly. Fighting the urge to double over in laughter, I mustered a passable performance as Surprised Gallery Preparator #1. (Requisite to being a good liar is first convincing everyone that you're a terrible one.)

There were so many questions. Why had von Stradtt left no telephone number? Why had he not called during gallery hours? What in the world was the significance of the letter "Q"? And so it went...but it seemed clear to me that the dealers wanted to believe in von Stradtt. I decided that the calls should continue.

And so, over the next couple of months, Alexander von Stradtt was rendered more distinct. A website was produced, featuring a photograph of the collector and art aficionado giving one of his "impromptu, guided tours of the Louvre" along with a narrative biography and a listing of his many honors. His pseudo-celebrity was made clear: according to the site's text, numerous magazines had lauded von Stradtt with praise, "most notably Paris Match." (The choice of this "notable" magazine was the brainchild of a good friend; it still makes me chuckle.)

An assistant named Gunter (pronounced: goon-ta) was also invented. This short, excitable German placed calls to SoHo Gallery on two occasions. The painter of the piece von Stradtt expressed interest in was contacted at his California studio, drawing him into the hoax's orbit and resulting in a hilarious exchange between the artist and the gallery directors. ("Who in the hell is this guy? Is he for real? You can't do that to my painting!")

The fax that heads this post was sent after Gunter "mistakenly" provided the gallery with a fax number instead of a working phone. The gallery's response, above, resulted provoked an incensed message from von Stradtt, assuring the gallery that "the incompetent Gunter," had been "dealt with" and that, furthermore, he was unaware of any trouble with his phone service.

The highlight of the project, for that is what it had become for my friends and me, was a casual remark von Stradtt dropped in the midst of yet another late-night voice message. "I'll call you when I next head to New York, but I've been just crazy as of late. I'm in Munich, of course. A-huh...I think you know why." Upon receiving this message, the gallery owners frantically began searching the Internet, looking for information on current events in Munich. Was von Stradtt attending some sort of bacchanal? An insider only art fair? Why didn't the gallery know about this event? Desks were pounded, feathers ruffled and, me....well, I no longer found the work day so tedious.

Frankly, I don't recall why the project ended. I suppose my friends and I started socializing more, and our lives filled with commitments and concerns other than beer, ladies and juvenile entertainment. The painting was finally sold to a collector who didn't demand a purple "Q" and, not long thereafter, von Stradtt quietly faded into the background. Even the URL of his publicity website provided only a broken link.

While the von Stradtt project was in its prime, however, many people suggested we document our chicanery. In the eyes of some, particularly those folks familiar with the art world, von Stradtt represented an exhibition opportunity. The leavings of the hoax - phone calls, photographs of involved parties, writings, web sites, news clippings, etc. - could easily be presented in a gallery context, a performance history of sorts. The notion was tempting, but in the end I thought better of it.

Having never intended the affair to be more than a lark, my friends and I hadn't created a fully formed character. Furthermore, we had already turned von Stradtt's eccentricity into over-the-top silliness - the verbal abuse he dealt Gunter, for example. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to marry the messages on SoHo Gallery's answering machine to the humanitarian celebrated in Paris Match and elsewhere. Most importantly, to make the hoax believable we would need to enlist the services of others; a crackerjack production team would need assembling if we intended to work up convincing news articles and presentable magazine layouts. With what little material we had, our mischief didn't warrant a show. Or did it?

Six years later, the art world has proven to be a rather undiscerning arena when it comes to von Stradtt-like experiments. The truly successful hoaxes - I'm thinking particularly of The Museum of Jurassic Technology (though this is a more loving, complex enterprise and something truly special), Andy Kaufman's antics, or Jose Alvarez's "Carlos" - are those that "go all the way." The artists involved in such hoaxes are intimately tied to their asserted realities; the hoax, in effect, consumes them, at least for a time. As Lawrence Weschler suggests in his book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, the critical component of a successful hoax is the perpetrator's willingness to abandon irony. A hoax is only believable when those confronted with the fiction believe that the bluffer is sincere. In such cases, even those in the know will second-guess themselves.

Keeping this in mind, what are we to make of the recent Binary show at Postmasters Gallery? (See my earlier remarks on the show here.) Sincerity plays no part in the creation and marketing of "United We Stand," a fictional "Hollywood-style blockbuster." I hope Eva and Franco Mattes, the artists behind the 1s and 0s, are having fun with their fake promotional campaign, but, ultimately, "United We Stand" is a lazy, puerile project, a Grade D, acerbic response to the state of the world. Standing in Postmasters, I felt expected to nudge other viewers in a self-congratulatory manner. The message conveyed: "We cognoscenti should be proud of our clever artist friends...and of ourselves. Why? Because we're educated and in on the joke."

But it's not only Binary's superior, acrid message that rubs me the wrong way. I also react against the show because I'm a product of our replacement culture. Philosophically, the global zeitgeist resides somewhere between embracing tradition - to a fault, in the case of the strengthening fundamentalist streak - and tearing down existing foundations. Most of us pay lip service to tradition and revolution, but our day-to-day actions reflect our consumerism and our willingness to render obsolete products and ideas that are still valuable, all in the name of progress.

Advertising does this better - or worse, depending on your perspective - than any other industry, although technology and fashion don't lag far behind. A hip commercial is considered tired two months after it first airs. As a result, advertisers constantly tweak their approach to make certain their product appeals to the younger demographic. Ad companies one-up one another by injecting dialogue even more barbed than the competiting spot or randomness even more "clever" (the Sony PSP television spots airing now, for example: "It's cheese you can listen to outside!").

Living and performing in front of our individual blue screens, we're eager to see what improvements will be made to our existing background. "What's next, man? C'mon. Let me see it. Cycle it! Now!" It's a sad state of affairs, and one the smart kids, Binary included, comment on. Unfortunately, their brand of arch critique - the self-assured, fuck-all posturing of hipsters and matriculating English majors - no longer sits well with me. Like nerd rock, I'm so totally over it.

I want the irony turned down and the crooked smiles pried open into gaping wonder. I don't want to deal with the hoax as wry commentary, rather I want - and I think the world needs - the lines blurred, I seek experiential abandonment.

I was twelve the first time I watched the 1984 film satire, "This Is Spinal Tap," and I believed it. I didn't laugh much; for most of the movie I just stared, dumbfounded. What's wrong with these morons?, I thought. After it was over, I asked friends of mine if they had ever heard of the band; this provided them with quite a few laughs at my expense. There are plenty of clues in the film; even at twelve, I should have recognized it as satire, but like the owners of SoHo Gallery, bent over the office answering machine, I wanted to believe. Christopher Guest provided the actors with a screenplay they could immerse themselves in and the rest is history. It's no surprise that a cult of Spinal Tap blossomed following the film's release. The movie doesn't ridicule its subjects, rather it endears their stupidity and arrogance to the viewer. Even if Guest didn't intend his "mockumentary" as a proper hoax - at least not in the same way that Orson Welles intended his 1938 radio "play," "War of the Worlds" - the ingredients were all present and the art persists.

So where are these competent con artists in the contemporary art world? There are clowns and jesters aplenty, but the working magicians, the cultural alchemists, are hard to find. Maybe they're just quiet for now? I'm hoping this is because we're not supposed to hear them. After all, if the con artist is uncertain of where commentary or character ends and reality begins, then the rest of us should be unsure, too. Perhaps, like David Wilson (of the MJT), the best con artists are those who have ceased conning, those who have entered into, or been consumed by, their own creations. As Wilson writes on the MJT Membership page, "Here at the Museum we feel a strange affinity for these first exceptional, earth-born creatures to leave our planet. Like the dogs, we feel ourselves to be lonely vanguards in a rarefied and unknown atmosphere." Amen. All hail the space cadet and a toast to those who keep our day jobs interesting.

Photo credit: image of Andy Kaufman,


Deborah said...

I agree the best hoaxes are without irony or superiority. To that end, I'd like to recommend a book - History Play by Rodney Bolt. It is a fictional biography that is based on the premise that Kit Marlow faked his death and went on to write all of Shakespeare's plays - that only someone with Marlow's Cambridge education, noble friends and extensive travels could have written those plays and not the son of a glove maker with a grammar school education that never left the country.

It's completely earnest, and other than the main premise, historically accurate. I highly recommend it to all of the history and Shakespeare nerds out there.

Anonymous said...

The best hoax lately has been JT Leroy. Unlike J. Frey, "JT" did not claim "his" writing was fact rather than fiction. It was just the author's persona that was made up. I find it fascinating that the real author created this character to get fiction published. Al the people who were taken in by him/her thought the writing was great, or at least worthwhile, because of who they thought the author was. If Laura (the real author) had just submitted her stories to publishers, none of these fancy celebrities would have found them to be worth of publication.

Bill Gusky said...


Art Soldier said...

The hyena has one of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom and an adult of the species has only the large cats of the family fear.

Hyenas are also highly intelligent predators, even more intelligent than the lions (some scientists claim they are of equal intelligence to certain apes). One indication of hyena intelligence is that hyenas will move their kills closer to each other to protect them from scavengers; another indication is their strategic hunting methods.

-- Wikipedia

Hungry Hyaena said...


I'll check out "History Play" when my reading pile is a little less intimidating. I used to be very interested in the scholarship surrounding Shakespeare and "pulling back the curtain," so it could be up my alley.


JT Leroy is kind of a sociological case study. I remember reading several of "his" shorter published stories/pieces when I first heard wind of the buzz - probably back in 2000 or 2001. I thought it was awful shit...poorly written and boring.

Yet, before long, celebrities were clamoring for the honor of reading "his" work at well-attended - standing room only - events and literary critics were dubbing "him" a contemporary Kerouac. Personally, I thought it was a sign of the apocalypse.

Happily, it's turned out to be a hoax of sorts, albeit one used to boost a career. I'm most interested in the real author's being a woman, given the nature of so much of JT Leroy's subject matter: adolescent male sexuality, drug abuse, self loathing and the like. Not that I plan to reread any of was too damned awful.

Art Soldier:

That's why I love 'em!

cpbvk said...

Very entertaining post. I average about three emails per week from Herr von Stradtt these days.

Jocelyn said...

I have to say that I think you're wrong about the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It's a really wonderful place (and the possibility of going there again is one of a very small number of things that might conceivably take me voluntarily back to Los Angeles in my lifetime) - but I don't think that I would ever describe it as a hoax, or put it in a conceptual category with Andy Kaufman or the legendary von Stradtt.

The difference between it and them is, I think, the difference between playing *with* someone and playing a joke *on* someone.
Andy Kaufman, and y'all with your von Stradtt, were definitely out to be yanking people's chains. Fooling people. Playing a trick.
Mr Wilson is, I am almost certain (as certain as one can be about the motivations of someone like that), not at all out to yank anyone's chain. He's just playing; and I think he really, really hopes that other people think it's fun and want to play, too.

Not that there's anything wrong with the age-old and honorable pursuit of chain-yanking, of course. I have been a great admirer of the von Stradtt prank ... well, since I first heard about it lo these many years ago.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yeah, you gotta love the college financing rates he offers!


I envy you your visit to the MJT, but I stand by my assertion that it is a hoax, albeit one of the highest order. You are correct, though, that David Wilson doesn't really intend to "deceive." Rather, he draws visitors into his partially invented world of rapturous amazement and shares it with them. As I wrote in the post, describing the MJT, "this is a more loving, complex enterprise and something truly special, if not unique."

As for your suggestion that lumping the MJT alongside Kaufman is wrong-headed, I would only encourage you to look at Kaufman's descent again. What began for Kaufman as "yanking people's chains," soon became something far more consuming. Even his closest friends worried that he had abandoned Andy Kaufman somewhere along the line. In effect, the hoax was no longer that and Kaufman was playing "with" everyone else...hell, he was playing "with" himself, in more ways than one. ;) Given much of what David Wilson's wife has said of her husband - and some of the clues Wilson deposits himself - it seems pretty clear that Wilson has married fact to fiction; he, like Kaufman, has ceased knowing exactly what is real and what is created, which is, of course, the whole point of his project for the more literal minded viewers, myself included.

I never intended to suggest that von Stradtt belongs alongside Kaufman or the MJT. That's why I describe von Stradtt as a glorified "prank call with some back story." We were trying to have fun with von Stradtt; it was something to do while drinking that made my work days a little more tolerable. It wasn't a hoax - hence my making an example of it in the post - and the project in no way belongs to the "same conceptual category" as the MJT or Kaufman.