36 Solar Lights – reflections on nature and civic society: Essential Workers, 2020. View of artist at MacMillan Wharf with Pilgrim Monument (background) lit red for essential workers. Photo: Mike Syers

Speaking My Business: A Conversation with Jay Critchley

Multidisciplinary artist/activist Jay Critchley, who is based in Provincetown, Massachusetts, uses humor and satire to touch on serious ecological, cultural, and political themes. He is the creator of the annual Provincetown Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla, a fundraiser for AIDS, women’s health, and the community, and Provincetown Community Compact, though his activism also extends beyond the local, traversing the globe from Argentina and Colombia to England, Holland, Germany, and Japan. Over the course of a prolific career, Critchley has written plays, made films and videos, and done performances and collaborative projects—all in addition to creating physical sculptures and installations, many of them out of sand. But perhaps he is best known as the founder and CEO of Old Glory Condoms, TACKI, and a host of other subversive entities that redirect corporate power into a force for good, a strategy explained in his TEDx talk, “Portrait of the Artist as a Corporation.”

Madonna with Child, 1986. Plastic tampon applicators, jock cup, lights, and mixed media, 5 x 6 x 3 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Elaine A. King: In 1975, you moved with your former wife to Provincetown. By 1977, you had realized that you were a gay man and an artist. What contributed to this life-changing awareness?
Jay Critchley: When I moved to Provincetown, I didn’t realize I was gay or even an artist. I was attracted to the landscape and general environment. When I was growing up, our family spent summers on Huntley Island, an isolated place off the Connecticut coast, in a rambling old house with no running water or electricity. My uncle started to rebuild and renovate it, and I liked working with him. I learned to work with my hands, without power tools—we did everything from rebuilding septic tanks to repairing stone walls. In 1973, I began coming to Provincetown with my wife, whose family had a house here. In a strange way, deep in my core, not only did I realize that I was gay, but also that I was really an artist; by the late ’70s, something inside me began pushing up like a geyser. Suddenly I began to discover another world beyond my sexuality—art.

EAK: In 1981, you became a “born-again artist” and began your “Sand Car” series (1981–84). Why did you choose the phrase “born again,” which usually has very different connotations, and what motivated the “Sand Car” project?
JC: The Provincetown Chamber of Commerce was holding a competition for a “Welcome to Provincetown” sign or artwork adjacent to the highway. I drove my sister’s old station wagon from Connecticut, encrusted it in sand, and presented the model to the Chamber. They blatantly said no, so I had to decide where I’d put it. I chose the main tourist waterfront parking lot, where it created a huge scandal. The police begged me to move it. A local lawyer represented me at the Select Board; they didn’t understand if it was art or a car. Nonetheless, it remained in the parking lot. People began hanging around and taking pictures with it, scratching things on it. I created unique sand cars for four summers and titled the series “Just Visiting for the Weekend,” because many people come to Provincetown and never leave.

The idea of becoming a “born-again artist” was not about religiously repenting for my sins. I was reclaiming myself and upending the term as a second coming out and rebirth at age 33. I had found my voice, my true identity, and myself. I like to re-appropriate words and to play with religious iconography. I was breaking out of the restrictive boundaries of my Irish-Catholic roots.

Just Visiting for the Weekend, 1968, 1981. Dodge Coronet 500 station wagon, dune sand, and mixed media, installation view at MacMillian Wharf, Provincetown, MA. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EAK: What about the content of the “Sand Cars”?
This was my first project as an artist, and it drew on my involvement with anti-nuclear projects and anti-war activism. The car is about postwar society’s dependence on fossil fuels. It was a symbol of freedom and consumption for the rising white middle class in America. The exploitation of energy and the environment is a serious issue. The idea of the sand is about many things, including the materiality of place—Provincetown is a sand dune geologically. Sand is never stationary; it’s always moving. I froze the sand on the car and halted the automobile’s normal function of mobility. The “Sand Cars” are about freezing time and function, and the beige sand picked up the famous light on the tip of Cape Cod.

EAK: Much of your work is filled with humor and irony, yet you focus on serious issues. Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades evince witty puns, and Marcel Broodthaers, whose conceptual work bursts with poetic, incisive political statements, come to mind. Was either artist an influence?
JC: Yes, both of them. Because I never went to art school, I created a radio program—A.R.T. FOCUS— for which I interviewed more than 50 artists. I had in-depth discussions with them, and they provided my art education. Someone mentioned Joseph Beuys, and I especially connected with his ideas. His stories and materials were visceral and very important to me. I liked his work because it integrated performance, ritual elements, and social/political issues. I am also a big fan of Hans Haacke.

EAK: Like Beuys and Haacke, you seem to position your work between social and political inquiries.
JC: Yes, though a lot of the work comes from the materiality of the elements. The ideas arise from the materials that I begin working with. They speak to me intuitively, and suddenly they stimulate my mind for an action.

Old Glory Condom Corporation – worn with pride country-wide, 1990. Promotional display for project launched at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EAK: Is there a conceptual line running through your work, driving very dissimilar pieces?
Everything is connected at a type of molecular level. As we become more aware of climate change and the devastation of our environment, we begin to acknowledge the interconnectivity of our actions and their effect on the sustainability of the planet. This is ultimately at the core of my work, which varies in execution and medium but not in content.

EAK: The power of corporations and CEOs plays a significant role in your practice, as does an analysis of systems. You have formed companies and acted the part of an executive. In 1991, your application for a trademark, related to the AIDS crisis, generated a lot of media attention and involved a legal battle. Could you explain the reason for the controversy?
JC: Early in the 1980s, I recognized the power of corporations in our society. I thought that if I created a corporate platform and positioned myself as a CEO, it would give me a certain gravitas in the media; my ideas would be respected and sought after. Over the decades, I’ve set up about a dozen corporate entities. The Old Glory Condom Corporation, which was part of the trademark effort, was launched in 1989 at MIT as part of a show. In 2019, I celebrated the 30th anniversary by re-launching the project. A lot of my work is about the media, and so I wanted to challenge the government over its lack of intervention and research support during the AIDS crisis.

I applied to the U.S. Commerce Department for a trademark in an effort to force the government to respond to the crisis, as well as to raise public awareness about HIV. I worked with David Cole, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights; he’s now the National Legal Director of the ACLU. The U.S. Commerce Department denied the trademark on the grounds that it was immoral and scandalous to associate the flag with sex. After a three-year legal battle, I finally won and was awarded the trademark. It generated both national and international attention, as planned, including an appearance in an “L.A. Law” episode. Ironically, the infamous Senator Jesse Helms created the first global HIV ad by angrily holding up my trademarked patriotic logo on CNN—Worn with Pride Country-Wide.

Miss Tampon Liberty – No with the Flow, 1999. Documentation of protest against opening of 9.5-mile sewage outfall pipe into Cape Cod Bay, Provincetown, MA. Photo: Vincent DeWitt

EAK: What about Miss Tampon Liberty (1985)? You were barred from entering a hearing room at the Massachusetts Statehouse to defend your work because you wore this Statue of Liberty gown made from 3,000 discarded plastic tampon applicators that had washed up on beaches.
JC: Miss Tampon Liberty was very regal and musical; when I wore the gown, the plastic applicators created a rustling sound as I moved. She was the public face of the corporation TACKITampon Applicator Creative Klubs International. The mission of TACKI was to ban the sale of non-biodegradable applicators. When I went to the statehouse, I filed a bill for the ban. It raised consciousness about plastics in the marine environment and toxic shock syndrome. Here again, I go back to petroleum and fossil fuels. There is a lot of attention now about plastics in the oceans and individual responsibility to recycle, but few people mention the connection to the fossil fuels industry and its corporate dominance. My longtime interest in petroleum led to the formation of another corpora- tion—Mobil Warming. I appropriated the Mobil Oil trademark to reveal how it was lying to the American public about climate change.

EAK: Was the HIV project connected to Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla, the fundraiser for AIDS that you founded in 1988?
JC: Unquestionably. Swim for Life aims to celebrate a sense of place and the liquidity of the harbor and its healing power. It is an ongoing performance piece that has raised close to $5 million for AIDS/women’s health in this community.

EAK: Septic Summer Rental, which you began in 1997, was another ongoing performance/installation that lasted until 2004. This quirky metaphorical piece dealt with tourism and environmental issues and also served as the location for your award-winning HBO movie, Toilet Treatments. How did it come about?
JC: After I had put in an environmental septic system, I rediscovered my abandoned cesspool. When I opened the lid, the world that I discovered changed my life. I decided to turn it into a summer rental with a rooftop sun deck, a TV, and a bed with shared bath and shower.

Septic Summer Rental, 2007. Repurposed septic tank, 5 ft. deep x 6 ft. circumference. View of artist at ribbon-cutting ceremony. Photo: Kathy Chapman

EAK: Did people stay in the space?
JC: Certainly, and it’s a great place for sex. It also became a performance destination for opera (Septic Opera: Heaven & Hell), performance art, installations, poetry readings, and theater.

EAK: In 2006, you converted what remained of the iconic Pilgrim Spring Motel in North Truro, Massachusetts, into Beige Motel—a 1950s, A-frame motel office with wings resembling a stage set. By day, this ready-made, surreal structure stood as a sand-embalmed sculpture (“The World’s Largest Sand-Encrusted Motel”), but at night, under changing colored lights, it became a glowing monument. What inspired you to make this beautiful, unique installation?
JC: Ever since I began working with the sand cars, I had wanted to encrust a building with sand. I made Beige Motel before the building’s demolition, with the owner’s permission. I’ve done three projects with pre-demo buildings. This motel was a symbol of the automobile, highway mobility, and American urban sprawl. I was inspired by the two physicists from Johns Hopkins University who determined that the average color of the universe is beige, which, to me, validated my use of sand and its cosmic meaning. Every week, I changed the color projected onto the structure—alternating through the color spectrum.

EAK: Ten Days That Shook the World: the Centennial Decade (September 28 to October 7, 2012) was a far-reaching project, sponsored by the Provincetown Community Compact and Cape Cod National Seashore. What was your motivation?
JC: The Herring Cove Beach Bathhouse was being destroyed. It was a fortress built in the 1950s, but due to beach erosion, it had to be destroyed. I was given permission to create a pre-demolition extravaganza. The title comes from John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, a firsthand account of the November 1917 Bolshevik Revolution; Reed was a member of the Provincetown Players as well as a Communist. It was also the centennial of the Provincetown Players (Eugene O’Neill’s first play was produced in Provincetown) and other Provincetown cultural and political institutions. I invited 50 artists, scientists, and musicians to create 30 cross-disciplinary events in 10 days, including talks about the environment, music, dance performances, installations, and a nightly bonfire.

Beige Motel, 2006. View of intervention at the former Pilgrim Spring Motel, North Truro, Cape Cod, MA. Photo: Kevin Thomas

EAK: What inspired The Whiteness House—tarred and feathered (2017), which addresses urgent concerns of racism and political power?
This project, which I made at the Santa Fe Art Institute, came out of my belief in social justice. When Donald Trump was elected, I couldn’t stop thinking about him following a Black president into the White House, which was built by slaves. I kept thinking of it as the “WHITE-NESS HOUSE,” and the history of being tarred and feathered, which is meant to humiliate. Who is being tarred and feathered? We, the American people, or the president? Race was at the core of Trump’s time in the White House. This piece has multiple layers, and it is a personal exploration of my own whiteness.

EAK: Which work or project do you think best represents your ideas?
I have an annual ritual on January 7 every year. It’s the end of the 12 days of Christmas, and I call it the “12 days of stockpiling.” The corporation that sponsors it, IRS—the International Re-Rooters Society, is about re-rooting ourselves back into the earth. It has been going on for 36 years, and it’s a cross between a religious ritual, a comic act, and a pageant. There’s a different theme every year; 2019, for instance, was “transactional storm surges.” It is both a performance and a ceremony focusing on the life cycle of the Christmas tree, which historically wards off evil spirits. After song, chant, and diatribe, the tree-boat is burned in Provincetown harbor at sunset. It’s a purge.

Re-signing of the Mayflower Compact 2020, 2019. Postcard and two-sided digital banner, 7 x 6 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EAK: How do you perceive yourself as an artist?
JC: I am a CEO of corporations, with an ability to change hats and speak my business when I am asked.

EAK: What have you been working on recently?
I’ve been working on several projects focusing on the Pilgrims and their confrontation with the Indigenous population, the environment, and the signing of the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown Harbor in 1620—the 400th anniversary was in 2020. It is considered to be the first “democratic” colonial document, signed by 41 white men on the Mayflower. The feminist Re-signing of the Mayflower Compact 2020 is part of an ongoing investigative project called Democracy of the Land. It’s an evolving work that delves into pre-Columbian and post-Pilgrim America. The invasion created an ecological disaster and was the beginning of climate change. This is not the new world; it’s the “moo-moo world.” Cows, pigs, and horses brought all the diseases. The planet has been severely disrupted. Civic action is required.