FREAK, n., A human oddity that has chosen to share, celebrate, and exploit his/her own genetic anomaly through performance. -999 Eyes
999 Eyes really caught my eye this year. I also attended Art Outside in 2011 and this modern freak show performed both years, but this time I looked at them in new ways. During the last 12 months, I’ve gotten increasingly involved with activism, sometimes around disability issues. Although I have a physical disability (fibromyalgia), it is what is called an ‘invisible disability‘ — unless I am using a cane that particular day, you probably can’t look at me and tell there’s anything different about me. As a person in my mid-thirties with a stylish cane, many even assume I am using the device for fashion rather than necessity. During the last year, my work in Occupy — and with our allies in ADAPT — has made me more acutely aware of the challenges people with all kinds of disabilities face in our society.
Much of modern disability activism is about giving the disabled not just the ability to survive, but the ability to live with dignity — to be respected, employable, able to live independently in their own homes and treated like human beings. The conventional image of the historic freak show does not necessarily fit with this ideal, suggesting that the people in these shows were exploited and objectified. Our cultural approach to the visibly different is often two-faced; look at Tod Browning’s infamous 1932 film Freaks, which on the one hand goes to lengths to show the humanity of its subjects while simultaneously turning them into objects of horror, especially during the film’s rainy finale.
Yet what is exploitation when it comes to entertainment? A musician who is especially beautiful by conventional standards could be said to exploiting appearance in his career. 999 Eyes performer Vlad Vendetta and founder and musician Samantha X both made the argument to me that all performance is inherently exploitative – as indeed one can make the argument that all work is exploitative under capitalism. 999 Eyes was founded by its freaks, when musicians Dylan Blackthorn and Samantha X met future 999 Eyes costars like Jackie of All Trades (a.k.a. ‘the Human Tripod’) and Peg-o the Leg-o, the ‘Modern Elephant Man.’
It continues as a freak-driven show. In addition to classic sideshow performances like sword swallowing, the freaks talk about their conditions, cracking jokes and opening minds. Ken “Peg-o” Pittman tells audiences how he is treated during his day to day life. Born with neurofibromatosis, he has been kicked out of pools and other public places for fear that the growths the condition causes are caused by contagious illness. When speaking to him and observing his interactions with fellow performers as well as spectators, it’s easy to speculate that his life at this sideshow, where people are encouraged to learn rather than fear, is far-more dignified. Are these freaks exploited when they run the show and use it to illuminate the uneducated?
Samantha X told the Winona Daily News:
She hopes the show changes people’s perceptions while it entertains. “I think it’s absolutely fascinating all the different ways people come out genetically.” Samantha said. “A freak is somebody blessed with nature’s art.”
Making this short film about 999 Eyes certainly challenged my preconceived ideas and brought to light some internalized ableism. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Find more from 999 Eyes at www.999eyes.com
Photos by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.