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Jumping the Disco Shark: How Techno is Saving Wildlife

Coachella’s Yuma Tent, a mirrorball, and the story of an unlikely conservationist.

by Zel McCarthy
Apr 21 2015, 4:00pm

Anyone who wandered into Coachella's Yuma Tent this past weekend to hear MK or Annie Mac probably noticed the most chic and sophisticated, slowly-rotating mirrored animal that has ever hung above a party. Disco Shark, a hefty mirror-plated fiberglass piece of dancefloor art, is the creation of New York-based artist and talent manager Kevin McHugh and has been the festival's most unique mirrorball-replacement for two seasons. Thanks to the inanimate shark's own cult of personality, it has inspired a campaign to protect real sharks around the world. Launched on Friday, the Disco Shark project on GoFundMe has set a goal of $20,000 to benefit two shark-minded organizations, Oceana and Shark Team One.

As a manager, McHugh has been the longtime career steward of artists like Danny Tenaglia and more recently Nicole Moudaber. Aside from the obvious manager-as-shark connection, the jump to become a shark artist and later a hero for the often-maligned sea creature wasn't an obvious one.

"I started with billfish—sailfish, marlin and swordfish—as I was enamored with the majesty of sailfish since I was a child," McHugh tells THUMP. "I heard about illegal shark finning in the past but my call to arms was reading a National Geographic report in 2013 that said 100 million sharks a year were being killed in this horrific way."

Coachella's Yuma Tent in 2015, Photo by Galen Oakes

Shark fins are considered a culinary delicacy in parts of the world, particularly in Chinese cooking where shark fin soup is a luxury akin to caviar or foie gras. Restaurants from Berlin to Brooklyn to the Bay Area have been known to offer the illicit item on their menus, despite laws outlawing its sale and consumption. Just this weekend a restaurant in London was busted for serving shark fins (to the tune of $150 per plate).

Much like ivory hunting, the process of shark finning is particularly gruesome. Sharks are often captured and sedated, though not always killed before their fins are hacked off and their bodies dumped back into the ocean. Without their fins, the sharks can't swim and either die a slow death by starvation or are fed on by other creatures, essentially eaten alive.

Still, with shark attacks a frequent summer headline, it's understandable that some aren't too sympathetic to the animal's plight. "We kill 100 million sharks a year and sharks kill an average of one human a year," McHugh points out. "Sharks are at the top of the food chain. Breaking that complicated chain by only killing sharks risks a cascade of chaos and destruction including out of control algae and the extinction of smaller animals who rely on sharks to kill their predators."

In the off season, Disco Shark can be found at Sound Nightclub in Los Angeles, photo via LessThan3

In addition to the peace of mind knowing that sharks will endure, when you donate to the Disco Shark campaign, you are offered a piece of disco shark memorabilia, ranging from $25 to $15,000. That top donation gets you a eight-foot shark like the one that hangs in the Yuma Tent, (though not the Swarovski-encrusted original). McHugh has set up a Damien Hirst-like production process for his sea life-inspired works ("I mostly design the more intricate pieces and handle the business and conservation aspects," he explains) and has an artistic and activist focus beyond sharks too, with the Swarovski-plated editions serving as a premium. A recent show in Dubai focused on sea turtles. At Art Basel he showed a piece about Florida's predatory lionfish.

Still, it's the fanbase of the Yuma Tent's Disco Shark that has inspired a movement, with its own fan-generated social media pages, videos of it in action popping up on YouTube, and a cottage tourist industry of people going to see it during its off-season habitat inside Sound Nightclub in Hollywood.

"I have always worked on other people's careers; this started out as a therapeutic way for me to make something with my own hands," McHugh says of his artwork. "Like many, I was damaged as a kid by watching Jaws so my shark art and conservation has honestly been an evolution."

More information about the artist and the Disco Shark GoFundMe campaign can be found here. Watch and learn more:

Zel McCarthy is the Editor-in-Chief of THUMP and a shark on Twitter.