CAA 109th Conference - Virtual Panel Recap: The Freak Show in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics

by Dr. Toni-Lee Sangastiano

PhD, 2019

Panel announcement:  The Freak Show in Contemporary Culture   and Aesthetics.
Panel announcement: The Freak Show in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics.

In a Bakhtinian surplus of seeing and intersubjectivity, Jill O’Connor (Cohort ‘16), Arrie Fae Bronson-Davidson, Marie A. Roberts, Billy X. Curmano, and I engaged in a revealing discussion that boldly presented our lived perspectives in both life and art through the Freak Show for the CAA session entitled The Freak Show in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics. As a postmodern form of art, the Freak Show or the sideshow, as it is sometimes known, is most powerful when used as a vehicle for social commentary and advocacy. This panel, which I chaired, brought together artists, performance artists, and artist philosophers to add a more nuanced perspective about the Freak Show and its relevance.

We witnessed the authentic vulnerability, dissensus, and power of the Freak Show as art in Arrie Fae Bronson-Davidson’s Kinetic Cabaret Productions performance and presentation, More Than Bodies: When Natural Born Freaks Make Art. Bronson-Davidson’s reversal of the gaze through Freak Show performance art boldly commented on transgender rights, concepts of normality, language, mental health, and the right to exist with agency.

In 21st Century Janus by Marie A. Roberts, the Artist-in-Residence at Coney Island USA’s Sideshows by the Seashore has a rare inside family history of sideshows. Roberts presented seven contemporary sideshow banner painters, including myself and her work, and asserted that the Freak Show and its banners have a place in the 21st century. The banner painting tradition is linked to the Quattrocento painting tradition and European processional banners. Today, Freak Show performers, who are “born naturals” or self-made, choose to utilize this form of performance art and the banners as agency and activism for disability rights which challenge our perspectives and canons of knowledge.

As a challenge to our impact upon our environment, performance artist, Billy X. Curmano, details his decade-long “Muck Minnow the Gill Boy” persona and sideshow banner art that accompanied his “homo phibian” transformation. Curmano incorporates the Freak Show as a fantastical yet serious commentary on the environment, climate change, and subsequent adaptation of humankind. Through video, Swimmin’ the River documents his 2,367.4 mile-long journey of an on-the-edge-of-your-seat swim of the Mississippi River over eleven seasons. The preternatural physical feat is akin to the “working acts” of the Freak Show.

Parallel to Muck Minnow, Jill O’Connor’s Putting Out Fires: David Lynch's Giant Fireman examined the folly humanity creates for itself in the popular series Twin Peaks through a mysterious character who appears in three episodes. O’Connor research focuses on a “natural born” seven-foot-tall actor, Carel Struycken, who plays “The Fireman,” and analyzes how Lynch reverses the perception of giants through numinosity, or mystical divinity. Struycken occupies a protective role over humanity as an enigmatic, quiet, higher power, and Lynch’s cinematic scenes remain connected to fairy tales and ambiguity.  

Roberts, Bronson-Davidson, Curmano, and O’Connor presented a dialogic dissensus, which reconsiders and reorders our perceptions about the Freak Show and its continued relevance to co-creation and co-existence to one another. Their work will continue to shape this important history.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Art and Answerability. Austin: U. of Texas Press, 1990.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2011(2010).