Though 999 Eyes were present at Art Outside last year, I spent a lot of time with them at Art Outside 2012 documenting their performances and speaking with the freaks. I also had a lot of thought-provoking conversations with my good friend Sarah, a disabled activist with ADAPT. The experience was an exploration of my own unconscious ableism and an examination of the meaning of exploitation, which I documented today in a Saturday Art piece for Firedoglake:
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 art 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.’
On Twitter, I referred to Vlad as a midget in a tweet I’ve since deleted. Both Sarah & Vlad took me to task for the use of this ableist terminology. When I asked him about it, Vlad told me he prefers to be classified as a ‘carbon-based life form.’