Freaks from Brooklyn


Let’s go on a little fishing trip. There’s nothing else I can call it: you’re at a website you wanted to be at, you start exploring it, and then….maybe that site’s URL is intriguing. Or maybe you see all those tempting topical links that the page’s author felt just had to be there. One of them looks sort of promising. You click on it, and …..oops! You’re hooked! Suddenly you’re on a very different page. Who’s doing the fishing?

A couple of weeks ago I went to an art exhibit in an old converted warehouse on the water in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I saw many works I liked, but one in particular struck me, and I thought I’d check the artist out later. I liked his ultra-realistic display of a creepy, deadly animal, mocked up as a commercial marketing label. Why did this attract me? I can think of reasons, as I’m sure you can. But there are no reasons. It just did. It was easy enough to remember the artist’s name: Takeshi Yamada. But what about him?

Later that night I Googled him, and quickly found him, among other places, at http://sideshowworld.com/SSA-15.html. A biography there told me the usual things that made someone artistic and unique, nothing very personal or exact, like his age or what his life in Japan was like before he moved to the USA at the age of 23. He described himself as a creator of Superrealist art, among other things – one of my favorite genres, and right there was a large array of thumbnail photos of his work, including the very one that had caught my attention!

The URL for this website – the part before the backslash – suggested that there might be more where this came from. Don’t you ever play around with URLs, especially long ones that attach jpegs or pdfs, wmvs or lengthy proprietary extensions? You wonder what came before the backslash, especially when there are 3 or 4 compound addresses in the URL. The address before this backslash was http://sideshowworld.com/, and it turned out to be a gigantic website containing hundreds of links about every aspect of sideshows you never knew existed, as well as dozens of on- and offline exhibitions, many of which were sideshows in their own right.

It didn’t take me long to select a link from the dozens. I chose The Barnyard Freak Show – don’t ask me why – where I came upon images like these:

But the appeal of historic freakish animals only went so far. There was also a link to the Live Deformed Frog Cam that a Minnesota State Agency had had the foresight to mount. It sounded promising, but it took too long for the frog to show any signs of life. You try living in front of a webcam! Anyway, anyone can be deformed. Another link to Fairly Freaky Animals yielded a purple bear, albeit one whose color had limited tenure. Below these were thumbnail links to images of posters advertising these shows, such as the tempting “Ducks with Four Wings,” very sociable birds, evidently, that won’t be found in any Peterson’s Guide, or works of imagination depicting freaks still unborn.

The “links” link from any website is always a tantalizing fishing hole, and the catch is never predictable. Sideshow’s is no exception, and it leads away from the pages Sideshow maintains. For example, from “General Sideshow Links” you will find The Human Marvels, a blog published by a Gothic-looking gentleman named J. Tithonus Pednaud that’s dedicated to unique individuals like the ones below:

It looked like Tithonus, who has a large presence on MySpace, needed to be reassured about something, and I e-mailed him, telling him I too was a freak, though it wasn’t very obvious from my appearance. But he never answered back. On the inevitable blogroll list of The Human Marvels were links to similar blogs, including boingboing, a popular site that calls itself “a directory of wonderful things,” implying that things needn’t be freakish or odd to be weirdly fascinating. Another link from Sideshow’s “links” page went to House of Deception, a similar site that features links to other carnivalesque phenomena, like the “deceptive” world of wrestling. Did you know there was a sports subculture devoted to midget wrestlers like Cowboy Bradley and Little Darling Dagmar? What is the point of this information? I haven’t a clue.

But let’s take linking a step further, into the world of social software. Let’s say you’re already a member of the well-known del.icio.us community – a wiki-type place that allows members to post and store their favorite links, as well as tag them, share them, search them, cross-link them, and retrieve them from anywhere. Finding users with compatible informational interests and tagging tendencies is easy and can lead to serendipitous or ingenious ways of finding new sources – of arcana, if nothing else. Let’s say del.icio.us user “Manofletters” decides to add House of Deception to the del.icio.us bookmark database, and he tags it with “odd”, “freaks”, and “performance.” Any words can be used to tag it, and other members can add their own tags.

Once House of Deception is entered into the del.icio.us database, the number of times anyone else has entered or copied it will be displayed. Sometimes no one has, and sometimes no one ever will copy your bookmark. But usually, someone has or will. Their tags and mine will be displayed. True, “odd” is pretty vague – maybe I should have chosen “weird” – but it’ll have to do for now. The screen names of everyone who has copied House of Deception will also be displayed. If you click on a screenname, his or her other bookmarks and favorite tags will be displayed. And on and on… All these things will be hyperlinked, networked and searchable. You users of MySpace, Flickr, YouTube or LastFM will be familiar with the pleasures of networking your preferences. It’s addictive. If you search the “odd” tag on del.icio.us (del.icio.us/tag/odd) you will find such oddities as The Blue Ball Machine, Strange Statues around the World, and Strange Attractor, a terrific British zine “celebrating unpopular culture” – but few, if any, links to “freaks.” If you search del.icio.us/tag/freaks you’ll have better luck, but don’t blame me for what you might find.

(PBW 07/31/06)
Posted in History, Library Science


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