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Stelarc (1946 - )

American philosopher of technology Don Idhl has written extensively on postphenomenology — the study of the phenomenology of technology. He divided our relationship with technology into three major categories: embodiment as an extension of our bodies (like eyeglasses we forget we’re wearing), hermeneutic as an extension of perception (like the microscope through which we see what would be invisible), and alterity as an expression of other (like when we curse at our computer like it was a person).

The work of Australian performance artist Stelarc explores those concepts through the lens of post-humanism, the idea that our bodies are obsolete and waiting for us to create better ones. He talks about our bodies being made up of new kinds of flesh: circulating flesh (the blood in my veins might end up in another person), fractal flesh (the controlling of a body by impulses from somewhere else), and haptic flesh (senses that are extended beyond the body). Stelarc just isn’t afraid to push those boundaries further than most of us would ever consider.

His early work in the 1960s focused on suspensions — hanging his body from hooks through his flesh, sometimes counter-balanced by weights and then (later) connected to industrial servos that moved his body for him. He’s best known, though, for his technology work: he built a third hand controlled by the muscles of his abdomen capable of independent action from his other two hands and exo-skeletons that held his body and acted as an extension. In 2007, he made news when he had an ear grown from his own cells and implanted in his forearm as a third ear

Stelarc’s work is deeply rooted in phenomenology, even if he’s pushing that beyond the Uncanny Valley into areas uncomfortable for an audience. In a 2007 interview, Stelarc argued: ”There are no ideas inside my head. There are no images inside my head. There are no memories inside my head. These are generated by my interaction with the world.”

Even if we aren’t ready to stick hooks in our flesh or let our bodies be controlled by alien impulses, Stelarc’s description of his artistic process can still provide us all inspiration: he’s embracing the risky unknown full of emergent possibility. He argues that’s what all artists have always done. “Artistic practice is the realm of exploring, experimenting and exposing,” he wrote. “It is about ambivalence, ambiguity and the slippage between intention and actuality. It is not simplistically an act of affirmation but of generating anxiety and uncertainty. Of accidents and surprises. That’s what artists have always been doing and will continue to do as an integral part of being curious and creative.”

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Johnny Meah, the Czar of Bizarre (1937 - )

Johnny Meah is the last living master of a dying American art — sideshow circus banner painter. In the mid twentieth century (and before), traveling circuses in the United States often had a “show on the side” from the main tent packed with oddities, freaks, blockheads and geeks. In the busy fairgrounds of the circus, the sideshow developed sales techniques based upon showmanship, centered around a stage just outside the tent called “the bally” that was usually flanked by lurid banners exaggerating the acts you might see inside (called “the banner line”). Usually, when the circus moved on to the next town, those banners were tossed in the trash and new ones were painted in the next town — such is always the curse of commercial artists.

Just like the transmedia crowd of today, American sideshow carnies had a language all their own to describe the phenomenon of the bally: they needed to pass on the art of “creating a ballyhoo” from one carny to another. Today, the phrase ballyhoo is part of the general lexicon (“extravagant publicity or fuss; praise or publicize extravagantly”) but the art of how to create the phenomena is in danger of being forgotten, discarded like the banners that were a part of it.

The Showmanship is the Salesmanship: How to Work the Bally

Imagine you’re “the talker” — the carny standing on the bally, looking out across the sea of circus-goers milling about. Your job is to entertain them (by which I mean “part them from their money”) and get them into the paid show. The carnies called that crowd “the tip,” and here’s the four steps the older more-experienced carnies have taught you:

Step one is building the tip — you’re going to have to make a ruckus to get their attention. But that’s all you have to do at first: get them interested and willing to pay attention, and start moving them towards you at the bally so you can convince them to part with their money. You’ll probably announce a “free show” there on the bally, the “one you’ve all been hearing about”. Something is just about to happen, and they wouldn’t want to miss it. You did mention it was free, right?

Step two is freezing the tip — you want to mesmerize and immobilize them. Tell them “step right up” and get closer to the show, so that they are bunched in a crowd and can’t easily move away physically. Mesmerize them with something startling so they forget whatever else they were thinking about (veteran talker Ward Hall suggests “Daytime, a beautiful girl in a revealing costume holding a big fat snake. At night: fire eating with a fire blast, fire juggling, or even better, a strong freak.”) As soon as you start to draw a small engaged crowd, others will get drawn in as well (“what are they all looking at?”) but you have to keep them entertained enough so that they don’t drift away. Then, when the tip has gotten big enough, you strike.

Step three is the pitch — this is where you pour on your commanding voice and your salesmanship, describing the show with as much hyperbole as you can muster. Talk to them as if they’ve already bought a ticket — tell them what they will see, how they will react, what they’ll tell their friends about the experience later. Strain credibility to the point of inviting criticism, and then encourage them to see and judge for themselves. “The bally is both practiced and improvisational. Reading the crowd and reacting to them is an art.”

Step four is to turn the tip — this is where your sales pitch becomes a call to action with a sense of imperative: time is running out, tickets are limited, move to the ticket booth now because I want you to see this show. This starts a phase of the bally called “the jam” because, if you did your job right, that frozen tip is now rushing like a herd of cattle to buy tickets. But you’re not going to let up on them for a second, because you’re focused now on “the grind” — tickets are going fast, the show starts in just three minutes, everyone else is already moving inside, the show’s about to start and you don’t want to miss it!

If the talker did their job right, the sideshow tent is now full of people who have already proven they will open their wallets. A lot of them probably didn’t even think they were going to see a sideshow today, but the energy carried them in (and opened their wallets.) As the talker, you’ve probably handed off your duties to a similar carny inside who’ll walk the crowd through the exhibits called “the lecturer” — but don’t think for a second that the salesmanship has ended.

Step five is the blow-off — something extra special, an extra exhibit not suitable for everyone, a chance to go behind the screen with the tattooed lady to see everything you’d want to see, all for just $1 more. This money was even more valuable to the sideshow performers than the ticket price (because they didn’t split this money with the “front office”). Once you got behind that screen with the tattooed lady, she might give you a blow-off too by telling you that all she really made was tips and would appreciate another dollar.

There are lessons for all of us in this, because most of us (whether we like it or not) also need to turn a tip somewhere in our art. You can do this as a part of the show by letting part of the show spill outside the tent. You should get their attention, freeze them in place and THEN make the pitch — always in that order. And then, once you know they’ll open their wallet for you, don’t be shy at finding out how much more you can get. You see elements of this formula around you everyday, but nowhere is it boiled down to such essence as on the bally. 

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A brief introduction to Johnny Meah — sword swallower, blockhead, historian and the last living sideshow banner painter.

2 Notes

William Castle (1914-1977)

In his day, William Castle was known as the King of Gimmicks. Even though his body of work included assistant directing for Orson Wells (The Lady From Shanghai, 1947) and producing for Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968), he’s best remembered as a B-movie shock filmmaker with a flair for promotional stunts. Here’s a few lessons in phenomenal work that can be learned from his films.

The movie starts with the first bit of marketing. The trailer for his 1958 film “Macabre” is a great example — you don’t see a single frame of the film, but you’re told that people who attend the film will have their lives insured by Lloyds of London for $1,000 against death by fright (unless you had a known heart condition or committed suicide during the screening.) His trailer asks you to imagine a movie so scary that you might spontaneously die in the theater, but like most good marketing he’s actually asking you to imagine already having bought a ticket.

Never be afraid to break the fourth wall. In his 1959 film “The Tingler,” a strange monster that lives in your spinal column can emerge and kill you unless you scream really loud at it. In the film, the Tingler escapes the screen, kills the projectionist in your theater, and proceeds to terrorize the audience. Castle developed a gimmick he called “PERCEPTO” — essentially, something similar to those “shocking handshake” buzzers, but installed under some of the seats of the theater and activated by the projectionist once the crowd had started to work themselves up into a frenzy.

Interactivity is mainly an illusion. My favorite Castle gimmick was for his 1961 film "Mr. Sardonicus" — the audience were handed out little cards with a glow-in-the-dark thumb that he called The Punishment Poll. Near the end of the film, the audience had a chance to vote: thumbs up if you want to show Mr. Sardonicus mercy, and thumbs down if you want to see him punished. The audience was picking the ending of the film. Except, Castle says the “mercy” ending was never once shown, as the audience always voted for the punishment. But Castle was having a gag on all of us, as TCM explains: "Although Castle asserts in his book that there was an alternate ending filmed — one where Sardonicus lives — the consensus among horror film scholars is that it wasn’t actually filmed. No different ending has turned up, even in these days of unearthing every scrap of unused material in extra features for DVD releases."

William Castle definitely thought about the phenomena of theatrical experience (one could argue to the deficit of his actual filmmaking) and realized that this kind of showmanship could translate into profits at the box office. He inspired many filmmakers who came after him (including John Water’s Smell-o-Vision gimmick Odorama for the 1981 film "Polyester".)

1 Notes

"A Brief History of John Baldessari" by filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, narrated by Tom Waits

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"Sleep No More" is MacBeth in a hotel room, and so much more (NYT: "Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully")

"Sleep No More" is MacBeth in a hotel room, and so much more (NYT: "Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully")

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the Minions of Gozer in action

the Minions of Gozer in action

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the cast of Minions of Gozer, the live Ghostbusters shadowcast

the cast of Minions of Gozer, the live Ghostbusters shadowcast

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Augusto Boal (April 16, 1931 - May 2, 2009) revolutionized thinking about interactive theater with "Theater of the Oppressed" - this video obit includes extended interviews with him about his concepts

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Claude Monet’s "Haystacks" series (1890-1891) as phenomenal work

Claude Monet’s "Haystacks" series (1890-1891) as phenomenal work