Life Out on the Street: The Freak Showroom Exhibit

Before beginning, I feel it is important to note that this is my own opinion and feelings, and I hope that everyone who visited took away something. Just because we do not agree does not mean we are not thinking, and that is what this project was ultimately about. I applaud Loglady Loon for her efforts because while many people dream of putting such events together, few follow through on their scheming.

I visited the Freak Showroom Exhibit recently with my partner, very excited to see this venture into the strange and socially deviant. An aspect of Second Life that I really enjoy is the ability to change appearance freely and thereby easily bush the boundaries of what is acceptable in look (in example, I frequently go bald), so I was curious as to how artists would test what is seen as acceptable. My mind imagined the classic carnival entertainers or survivors with unfortunate abnormalities I’ve often seen on various documentaries based on the Freak Show instructions:

Create your own Freak Avatar, you can take inspiration from real Freaks of history. Then you take a pic (artistic pic) of your Freak. Obviously you can edit it with Photoshop or similar. You can also use RL landscapes or textures. …

When we arrived at the entry point, the area was open when a barren-edge; a great deal of space lingered between objects and combined with the dark, worn colors, there was little life present in the atmosphere of the build. Thanks to our ADD, Sentrosi and I meandered over to the giant robotic praying mantis to goof off a bit before actually viewing the galleries. I would come to find that this mechanical interpretation of life with a bit of gore thrown in would be a good metaphor for the overall experience.

There were only a handful of pieces that actually looked like they were inspired by historical freaks. Paola Tauber provided a beautiful, aged capture of a bearded lady, dressed elegantly and poised perfectly but wearing a visually, socially distracting beard. Bearded women not only question the interpretation of feminine beauty, but masculine standards- is it acceptable for a man in Western society to have a lean or delicate frame? Or to wear a dress when women can wear suits? Tauber did not provide much beyond the visual in the connected notecard, but there was a link to the music video Creep by Radiohead and the statement “we don’t belong here”. While basic, it is a very relevant statement for the general theme.

Other notable works around the historical framework were Abigale Heron’s Half Woman, inspired by entertainer Mademoiselle Gabrielle, and Raffaello Robbiani’s the Hunchback of NotreDame. Heron’s piece was delightful in that it tied in gothic style without overwhelming the core-concept; the image reminded me a great deal of a songbird in a cage, sitting upon its swinging perch sweetly while others watch outside. On Robbiani’s, I really enjoyed how it did not look like Disney’s Quasimodo or other facially-distorted representations of the character. These versions irritate me and I’m not exactly sure why. I think it might have to do with making the character seem more retarded and pitiful, gaining the same sympathy form the audience as they would give to an animal rather than empathy between humans. Robbiani’s figure carries the burden of his back, but otherwise appears like any other normal human (and some might find his visage even handsome). Not only does this speak to one aspect causing someone to be outcast, but it portrays visually the concept that everyone is carrying a load of problems with them, which may lead to being a freak.

My favorite work inspired by reality was Angelllina Tedeschi’s portrait of a gorgeous, modern woman… with hair growing all over her face. More than that of the bearded lady, Tedeschi provided information in the connected notecard about hypertrichosis, or Werewolf Syndrome. This disorder causes hair to grow all over the body, excluding palms, soles and (to my knowledge) the eye lids and fleshy areas like the mouth. Scientists have yet to figure out what causes this phenomenon, as recent comparisons of suspected genes have provided more questions than answers. Laser treatment and other hair removal methods also do not appear to be very effective. While it can cause irritation and some health problems if not groomed properly, the main problems are socially based. Children with this problem are targets for ridicule, isolation and public amusement at their expense. The beautiful person that Tedeschi portrays would probably never find work as a fashion model, despite her stunning structure and fierce gaze. Of course, even a normal girl is considered ugly when held up to the unnatural physique of the classic model image.

Both my partner and I were intrigued by the two works inspired by mythology, Cromm by Jarl Soderstrom and The Faun by Cerdwin Flanagan & Jonny Dusk. Initially, they did not strike me more than well constructed art of a dark nature, but upon further reflection, the greater society does outcast those who do not follow one of the major belief systems. In fact, depending on where one lives, only one path may be accepted while all others are eternally damned. Personally, I find this as insulting to a greater, omnipotent divine, as it essentially limits the powers and capabilities of it. If you do believe in a higher spiritual being, what right do you have to say that Him/Her/It/They can only do things one way? On a related note, I initially saw Yujin Haedong’s Pinhead as an interpretation of the Venus of Willendorf, and was intrigued that it was the artist’s own unique combination of ideas. This case of mistaken identity can underscore many concepts, but for the subject of this post, I choose the classic, “What you see is not always what you get.”

Many of the artwork shown, though, seemed to be framed with ‘enlightening by frightening’. The “Nightmare” that Loon wanted to create was taken too literally and the “leaning toward the Macabre” became ‘being supported by’. (Again, this is just all in my perspective.) As I browsed the tents, there were times it just seemed like an excuse to play with Halloween themes early. Some pieces were not so much scary but disgusting, at times not even making sense (though, I can be picky about logistics). Yes, I know full well that the old shows had their terrors and obscenities- we can still see performers today that strike nails into their body or hang by wires with piercings. There is even a museum on the east coast of the US that the public can visit to see a huge collection of medical oddities, including a giant, preserved human colon. And yet, they still seem different from a number of the works featured at the gallery.

Among the dark art was Tomoyo Breitman’s piece. Her haunting image of a pale figure lying in a cell stood apart with the story behind it, found in the notecard provided by the image:

This picture was inspired by the movie “The Island”. A synopsis of the movie could be found here:

The new milemium marks the period where science and drug discovery now centres on organelles and genes in a single cell. Scientists are now breaking into many controversial areas of research, such as cloning and genetic manipulation, to the extent that critics accuse they are trying to “play God”. The question on how far we should go is crucial at this stage. One wrong choice and our future could be as the scenario painted below, where there is creations of man-made freaks due to genetic manipulations, make it inhumane and bleak…

Back Story

Imagine an era where the technique of cloning has been perfected. Imagine that these clones were used as test subjects for various drugs and vaccines. In this era, the Utilitarian Ethical Theory provides a reason for the murder of thousands of clones each day. “After all, we are using man-made “robots” to save God’s people!” they would argue. These could be our near future, where the advancement of technology reaches a bleak period…
The inhabitant of room 4567 at Genetics Wonders Laboratory sat on her crib, gazing into the dark, just as she did every night. She was one of “them” – test subjects for several genetic experiments. A sign on her door read:

Test Subject: 11987
Symptoms: Lack of melanin, modified ear, eye colour and nose structures
Current Activity: Aiding Dr Anderson in creating a vaccine for skin cancer.

She heard doors locked hurried footsteps and mutters of goodbyes as her “owners” left the building. A soft sigh escaped her lips as feelings of relives washed through her body – relieved that she could finally find some peace. For a moment, she forgot the IV tubing left in her thigh. She winced as the drug was yet again for the umpteen times that day. Her right thigh was red in irritation as she gently rubbed that spot. A frown seems permanently encased on her face. She glanced down at her petite structure. A flimsy shirt framed her structure. The adolescence was stick thin. So much for saving resources for the superior beings (normal humans in this sense). Well, at least they gave her enough to sustain till now and for that she was grateful. She knew that time was running out and this drug would soon kill her. 11988 passed away the last week, as she heard scientists moaning in the next room for the lost of their “evidence”. If this is earth, what will heaven be like….?

The tale really heightens the emotion swirling within the picture, and while there are elements of horror, the fears – based on core terrors – beckon people to keep looking and grotesque features make it that much more sensitive, that much more human. Breitman ends with a point that there is no difference between 11987 and today’s freaks, questioning if the discrimination against them will ever stop. Though I agree that a great deal of pain has befallen those not of the norm, I feel it is also important to realize that how we go about providing solutions. Certain laws in the US that were meant to better the lives of circus entertainers – especially those in the freak shows – actually harmed performers, for they could no longer show their acts and therefore no longer earn a living.

There was a third major subgenre within the freaks amongst the classics and horror, one that may have been easily overlooked that really illuminated the idea of freak. These were not outrageous distortions of the avatar, nor had advanced editing work done. Normal people were the focus of these pieces- the old, the young, the ethnic. Differences we take for granted, that we think we have overcome but still shun and shy away from. Notable freaks were Nedeko Kohime’s “Ganguro Tokio Girl”, featuring a well-known rebel of Japanese female traditions, Nawja Eclipse’s “Freak Power!”, capturing an aged woman daring to don lingerie with a grin, and Frutti Freschi’s depiction of a dark-skinned, short-stature cello street-musician.

Within this category, two pictures held onto my attention fiercely. The first was “Rosie Jean” by Janee Bonde, the “Trailor Park Trash Queen”. This picture did not have much – if any – post-editting, nor was there a great deal of effects or the like evident as one might expect in SL photography. It was incredibly raw, just like the subject:

She lost her child in a car crash when she drove drunk. Since then she sits at the playground all day. People call her FREAK
I´d call her heartbroken………

Perhaps it’s my own connection to American rednecks or my emerging maternal nature, but this wrenched at my heart. In some ways, it seems like a distant fantasy; in others, it’s terribly real. Bonde’s character is depicted in a hazy sunset, sitting on the wooden edge of a wood-chip box with her hair still in rollers and a beauty mask still on her face, a perfect representation of how people can abruptly be thrust from their daily routine into uncertain, sometimes tragic states. And for some, they can never pick up the pieces, nor do people help them.

The second image was Xavi Nightfire & Rinka Watanabe’s “Cubra Libre”. I fell in love with this picture because it seems so simple on the surface, even out of place amongst all the others, but it really speaks on so many uncomfortable issues. Strongest of all them, I believe, is race: for how long and in how many cultures has the difference of our skin not only set humans apart, but caused them to harm one another? The two individuals presented in this snapshot of life may appear “normal”, and in fact, by many standards, they probably be are. But how many people would see them – or other ethnicities – as being different first and then look for the similarities? Amusingly, someone actually contacted Loon and bluntly told her it was racist (you can see a discussion here). Really, it is more discriminating to cover up and hide our history rather than facing our mistakes and weaknesses, which Nightfire & Watanabe force the thinking audience to do.

Overall, I really would have liked to see more freaks in the classic and everyday sense. I felt, as I mentioned earlier, that there was a great deal more of horror-flick entries than images with meat for minds to chew on. Of course, no effort shown here should be completely written off- to even try shows character and an awareness that we live in a plastic world dominated by Barbies and Kens (or Alans, depending on what Big Brother Mattel is up to). I am very thankful Loon and company brought this together and believe it should be one of the memorable events in the SL community for this year.

The Freak Showroom will close down completely February 17th. See it before it rolls away…

More on the Freak Showroom:
The Freak Showroom Site
Avenue Magazine for February 2009 (p.228-235)
Freak_Show FlickR Group


~ by Terry Toland on February 15, 2009.

2 Responses to “Life Out on the Street: The Freak Showroom Exhibit”

  1. […] I wrote a lot in this post, and there’s not terribly many pictures. If you are interested in the rest, please visit my blog and see the original entry. […]

  2. […] project to the creative minds of Second Life: capture the opposite of beauty and present it at the Modasl Freak Showroom. Since then, the question has stuck with me- what does it mean to be a […]

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