These are divisive times. Division isn’t always a bad thing of course. It is valuable grist for many an artistic mill, perhaps none more so than that of the enigmatic and controversial street artist, ‘Toothfish’.
Since 2010, strange illustrations have been appearing in high profile public places, promising, among other things, that ‘The War Against Nature is Over’, assuring viewers that they are ‘an animal’ and making the troubling assertion that ‘There is no Money’.
Each is signed simply ‘Toothfish’.
To date, these illustrations have appeared in more than 40 countries around the world, spurring art critics and baffled observers to ask the question: Who, or what, is Toothfish?
We decided to confront our fears, do some hunting, and find out.
Idealog: Who or what is Toothfish? Horse-headed corporate avenger? Avant-garde anti-capitalist? The hive-mind of a disenfranchised natural order?
Toothfish: Toothfish came into being in late 2010. Something inexplicable happened in the collective consciousness which somehow gave rise to a kind of pan-dimensional being. This demi-urge or daemon seems to work by invading the minds of its human hosts and bending them to its powerful will. Artists and professional photographers appear to be particularly vulnerable.
Toothfish started off with a strong focus on marine conservation and then morphed into a broader campaign for enviro/social justice. It doesn’t have a lot of resources but it does get really good support from certain friendly printers. At the moment its minions are working on a new series of posters addressing a number of issues including sustainability and non-violent revolution.
Toothfish (or someone pretending to be it) will also be appearing at Vivid Street Art Festival in Wellington (Feb 15-21) where it will take-over a bollard in Cuba Mall with another conceptual paste-up artist called Bent.
So Toothfish is a collective?
Yes and no. On the one hand Toothfish purports to be exactly as stated above, i.e. some kind of other-worldly phenomenon that takes control of other minds and dictates their future actions. Some people are only ‘possessed’ for a short time while others become its perpetual slaves. It’s always easy to tell when someone is possessed by Toothfish because they start getting fixated with trying to solve all the world’s problems. It’s a kind of enviro-religious mania. They get this guilty haunted look and start putting up enigmatic posters as if their very lives depended on it.
Why the anonymity?
Anonymity is necessary because some of the individuals possessed have careers which might be damaged if they’re exposed. For instance most artists need to sell art to rich people because they’re the only ones that can afford it. Rich people tend to vote National so being an obvious left-wing radical isn’t going to help your sales/pay your studio rent or buy the next can of dog food.
We’re not in this to get famous or make money. We’re an art kamikaze, on a mission to heaven. Are you with us?
What sort of static have you received over the years from the powers that be? Any brushes with the law?
Three of the posters have given rise to complaints from local bodies and are no longer allowed to appear on council-owned spaces. One of Toothfish’s acolytes was threatened and had his camera stolen when it was caught photographing a guy smashing up a display unit full of posters advertising a pre-election show. We’ve even been threatened for just photographing a poster: “Don’t photograph that fucking rubbish!”
We’ve also been condemned by the PM!
Image: New York, March 2012. Photo by Martin Basher.
What exactly is the war against nature? Who’s winning?
Like John and Yoko’s famous War is Over billboards, it is an idealistic attempt to stop the war by an act of affirmative love. The poster asked two questions: Is there a war on nature? And whose side are you on?
The latest information about global warming makes us think that the war really is over. We’ve lost. We just don’t all know it yet. Humans will soon be extinct but it doesn’t matter because nature will persist. Life will adapt. New civilisations will emerge.
Image: 'Occupy London' protestor, April 2012
So there is no money? What happened to it?
It’s a cliché that money is the root of all evil but clichés become clichés because they contain a lot of truth. The challenge is always to reconceptualise a cliché and make it relevant. The ‘No Money/SOLD’ posters are trying to get people to think about the history of money – where did it come from and where is it going – as well as to consider the relativity of our current value systems where some useless things are very expensive and other useful things are not.
That chicken gives me the creeps. Who is it watching?
It all depends where you put the poster or the sticker. When someone puts a ‘We are Watching You’ sticker on a packet of frozen chicken in the super-market, that’s when it becomes a piece of art. The image by itself is nothing. It’s how people use it that counts. The animal poster series represents the righteous gods of nature. Beware! Step up to being a proper animal yourself before it’s too late!
Where are some of the stranger places Toothfish has left its mark?
Toothfish posters have appeared and been photographed in about 40 countries and every place from A to Z.
They have popped up on top of mountains, next to volcanos, underwater in the Bahamas, on a tent on the Ross Ice Shelf and in a stripclub in Melbourne. Toothfish has run major campaigns in all the main centres of New Zealand as well as in London, Luxembourg and Paris. One of our favourites is the photo of a camera-man holding up a ‘You are an Animal’ sticker in the Whitehouse Press Briefing Room in 2013.
What’s your greatest victory?
We’d like to hope that more people know what a Toothfish is than when we started and that our biggest victories are still to come!
Image: Boulder Beach, Ulva Island, February 2014
What’s the end game, Toothfish?
That’s easy. The perfect poster at the perfect time in the perfect place will bring down the government. The forces of good and evil will be perfectly balanced.
The ideas about what Toothfish is and what it is not continue to evolve. Its main agenda is to try and bring the forces of the universe into harmony using posters, satire and non-violent action. It always needs more Oompa Loompas to design posters/stickers and put them up and take photos and provide content for the net. If anyone would like to be inducted just get in touch with us through the website. There is only one rule in Toothfish: No-one is allowed to say who else is in the group.
And the TPP? What’s Toothfish’s position?
It'll be another cluster-fuck for the environment...and it’s not good business.