The Flea Circus

One, two, three!
Watch the elephants standing
All the fleas jump
Watch out, here comes the trainer!

Vinicio Capossela, I pagliacci (2000)

Fleas that pull carriages and horses, fleas diving into a glass of water from the top of a trampoline, duelling with tiny swords, even shooting themselves from a miniature cannon just like the most famous human cannonballs.

The circus has always thrived on the most extreme, impossible challenges, as only the ordinary is left out of the Big Top. It is therefore only natural that classical animal trainers – who made dangerous and enormous beasts bend the knee – would be featured alongside the opposite end of the spectrum, those tamers who managed to make microscopic creatures perform exceptional stunts.
This is why the Flea Circus is one of the most enduring (albeit misunderstood) sideshow acts.

First of all, let’s address the question that might  already cross your mind: are there any fleas in these shows at all, or is it just an optical illusion?

The short answer is that yes, in the beginning real fleas would be used; then gradually the number slipped into the field of illusionism.
It is worthwhile, however, to enjoy the longer answer, retracing the fascinating story of this strange entomological circus – which was invented by an Italian.

A Brief History of the Microscopic Circus

It all started when, in 1578, a London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot, in order to show off his skill, built a tiny lock complete with a key made of iron, steel and brass, for the total weight of “a grain of gold”. He then forged a golden chain composed of 43 rings, so thin that it could be tied around the neck of a flea. The insect pulled the padlock and the key with it.

Almost two centuries later, in the attempt to replicate Scalliot’s publicity stunt, a watchmaker named Sobieski Boverick built an ivory mini-carriage “with figures of six horses attached to it—a coachman on the box, a dog between his legs, four persons inside, two footmen behind, and a postillion on the fore horse, all of which were drawn by a single flea”.

In the 1830s, inspired by these two predecessors, the Genoese emigrant Luigi Bertolotto employed the little pests for the first time in a circus context, exhibiting his trained fleas in Regent Street.
Following in Boverick’s steps, he too proposed the number of the flea pulling a carriage with horses – an element that would later become a mainstay of the genre – but his show went far beyond that: with the typical Italian taste for theatricality, Bertolotto turned his fleas into proper actors.

 

He made tiny custom-made suits, and delighted his audience with several tableaux vivants featuring several fleas at a time. First of all there was the Arab scene which saw the Sultan as protagonist, with his harem and the odalisques; then came the hematophagous version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
One of the highlights was when the insects did a pocket-size reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the amused spectators could recognize Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Blücher, all dressed in uniform. Another part of the show was the fancy ball, in which a pair of insects dressed in gorgeous clothes danced accompanied by an orchestra of 12 elements.
The public was astonished and laughed at the evident satire: here is the lavish world of high society, miniaturized and ridiculed; here are some great war heroes, personified by the lowest animals in all creation. You could have crushed with one finger even the Emperor himself.

Bertolotto became the first (and last) true flea superstar; his fortune was such that he left for an international tour, finally settling in Canada. Imitators soon began to appear, and although they never topped his fame they spread the flea taming act throughout the world.
There were many incarnations of the Flea Circus, ranging from the most basic street performance, often employing a simple suitcase as a stage where fleas made elementary stunts, to more elaborate versions.

The last great flea manager was in all probability William Heckler, a circus performer who at the beginning of the 20th century left his career as a strongman to devote himself full-time to fleas. After touring the United States far and wide, in 1925 his circus became part of the Hubert’s Museum in Times Square.

Here for a few dollars you could see Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar (who would later appear in Tod Browning’s Freaks), Olga the Bearded Woman, Suzie the Elephant-Skinned Girl, and snake charmer Princess Sahloo. Another, smaller princess performed in the museum’s cellar: Princess Rajah, the flea who played the role of the oriental dancer in Professor Heckler’s circus.

In addition to performing traditional athletic feats, such as jumping into a hoop or kicking a ball, Heckler’s fleas played a xylophone (allegedly made of nail clippings), juggled small balls, and staged boxing matches on a miniature ring. Heckler continued to work with his mini-cast until the 1950s: at the height of his success, his show could yield more than $250 a day, the current equivalent of  $3,000.

The Infernal Discipline, or How To Tame A Flea

Human fleas, in spite of their annoying bites and the fact that they can be carriers of plague and other dangerous diseases, are actually really extraordinary insects.

Imagine you could jump more than 90 meters vertically, leaping over the Statue of Liberty, and 230 meters horizontally. This, in proportion, is the ability of the pulex irritans.
The muscles of its hind legs are not the only ones responsible for this incredible propulsive force: in fact they prepare the jump by compressing and slowly distorting an elastic pad composed of resilin, which during this “charging” phase is kept locked by a tendon, and can thus store muscle energy. When it comes to jumping, the tendon snaps back into position therefore releasing the pad. The flea takes off with a dizzying acceleration of 100 times the force of gravity. To put things in perspective, a person can only withstand a vertical acceleration of 5g before passing out.

You might then understand how the first and biggest problem a trainer had to solve was how to convince his fleas not to jump off the scene.

For this purpose the insects were kept for a long time in a test tube: they would hit their heads on the glass until they learned that jumping was not an appropriate behavior. A more drastic remedy consisted in gluing them onto the stage or tying them to some object, but this could only work for those elements of the “cast” that were supposed to remain still (for instnace the orchestra players).
As for all the other fleas, which had to perform more complex actions, it was necessary to select those that showed a more docile character (usually females); the bridle was assigned only to the slower ones, which were destined to pull carriages and carts, while the more lively ones became soccer players or divers. All this, of course, if we are to trust the literature of the time on the subject.

In order to force these little daredevils to perform their stunts, various techniques were used – although, to be honest, it’s a bit difficult to view these tricks as a proper “training”.
In fact, if you look at it from a flea’s point of view, the circus appears to be a place of cruelty and terror, in which a sadistic and gigantic jailer is subjecting his prisoners to an endless series of tortures.

Towing fleas were harnessed with a very thin thread of cloth or metal passed around their head; once positioned, this leash would remain there for the insect’s entire life. The difficult part was to exert the right binding pressure, because if the thread was fastened too tight then the flea could no longer swallow, and died.
As for saber-fencing fleas, two small pieces of metal were glued to their frontal limbs; naturally the insects tried to get rid of them, shaking their paws in vain, thus giving the impression of dueling each other.


Soccer players were selected among the fleas that jumped higher: a ball was soaked in insect repellent (often citronella oil, or a disinfectant like Listerine), then pushed towards them as they were kept in a vertical position, and they kicked it away with their hind legs.
Similar trick was used for juggling fleas which were fixed or glued on their back, with their paws up in the air; as they tried to get rid of the toxic ball that was placed over them, they made it roll and spin.

As for the musicians and dancers, an article from 1891 describes the show in detail. Two “dancers” are glued each to one end of a piece of golden paper:

They are placed in a reversed position to each other – one looking one way, the other another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea’s Waltz.

To balance all this horror, let us point out that the flea trainer personally nourished all his precious professionals with his own blood. For the parasites it was certainly a rough and hectic life, but at least they never skipped a meal.

Now you see me, now you don’t:
Illusory Fleas & The Zeitgeist

There does not seem to be a vast literature on fake fleas.
What is certain is that “flea-circuses-without-fleas” began to exist alongside the authentic ones as early as the 1930s. The circus act continued shifting towards the sphere of illusionism and magic until the 1950s, when particularly elaborate versions of the trick began to appear and trainers stopped using real fleas.

Michael Bentine, one of the members of the Goons, had his own circus in which non-existent fleas pushed balls along inclined planes, jumped on a table covered with sand (each jump was “visualized” via a puff of sand), climbed a ladder by “pressing” one step at a time, and splashed into a glass of water. Other fake trainers used magnets and wires to drop the obstacles allegedly knocked off by running fleas, while electric or mechanical gimmicks operated the trapeze and moved the fake fleas balancing on a wire; some mentalists even exploited invisible “telepathic fleas” to read in the minds of the spectators.

Today only one well-known circus still uses real fleas: it is the Floh Circus, which makes its appearance every year at Oktoberfest.
The rest of the few circuses in circulation are all based on illusion: one of the most famous is the Acme Miniature Flea Circus, run by Adam Gertsacov. According to him, this type of show is the purest and most suitable for our times, precisely because it is based on uncertainty:

People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.

Perhaps these fake flea circuses imprudently rely on a kind of naivety which no longer exists.
Yet it is true that, in a time when our perception is constantly challenged, these deceptive gadgets take on an unexpected symbolic meaning. Although designed to be harmless and amusing, they are based on the same principles as the far more menacing deep fakes and all those hate and fear narratives we are daily subjected to: every illusion really only works if we want to believe it.

And while Gertsacov and his colleagues continue to claim the superiority of the art of story-telling over mere reality, the fleas – the real ones – are thankful it’s all over.

Most of the information in this article comes from Dr Richard Wiseman’s Staging a Flea Circus, which contains many other curiosities (for example on the difficulties of finding flea supplies), and from Ernest B. Furgurson, A Speck of Showmanship, in The American Scholar, June 3, 2011.
A good study directory on fleas and their history is The Flea Circus Research Library.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 19

Boy, am I bored. Luckily, there’s a new collection of links on Bizzarro Bazar.” (Photo: Tim Walker)

Forget icecream: to fight the heat, nothing better than some icy and chilling reads, directly from my (mortuary) freezer!

  • James Hirst (1738-1829) used to ride on a bull he had trained; he kept foxes and bears as pets; he built a wicker carriage so large that it contained a double bed and an entire wine cellar; he installed a sail on his cart, so as to navigate on land, but at the first road bend he ended up flying through a tailor’s window; he saved himself from a duel to the death by placing a dummy in his place; he received dozens of garters from English noblewomen in exchange for the privilege of standing inside his self-constructed eccentric coffin; he refused an invitation from the King because he was “too busy” teaching an otter the art of fishing. (I, on the other hand, have vacuumed the house today.)
  • Jason Shulman uses very long exposures to photograph entire films. The result is spectacular: a one-image “summary” of the movie, 130,000 frames compressed in a single shot. “Each of these photographs — says Shulman — is the genetic code of a film, its visual DNA“. And it is fascinating to recognize the contours of some recurring shots (whose imprint is therefore less blurry): the windows of the van in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the static scenic desing in Méliès movies, the bokeh street lights of Taxi Driver. And I personally never thought about it, but there must be so many close-ups of Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, in order to make that ghostly face appear… (Thanks, Eliana!)

  • Since we’re talking about photography, take a look at Giovanni Bortolani’s manipulations. In his Fake Too Fake series he has some fun slicing up and reassembling the body of beautiful male and female models, as in the example above. The aesthetics of fashion photography meets the butcher counter, with surreal and disturbing results.
  • It’s still taboo to talk about female masturbation: so let’s talk about it.
    A nice article on L’Indiscreto [sorry, Italian only] recounts the history of female auto-eroticism, a practice once considered pathological, and today hailed as a therapy. But, still, you can’t talk about it.
  • While we’re at it, why not re-watch that nice Disney cartoon about menstruation?
  • I thought I’d found the perfect summer gadget, but it turns out it’s out of stock everywhere. So no beach for me this year. (Thanks, Marileda!)

 

  • You return to your native village, but discover that everyone has left or died. So what do you do to make this ghost town less creepy? Easy: you start making life-size rag dolls, and place them standing motionless like scarecrows in the fields, you place them on benches, fill the empty classrooms, you position them as if they were waiting for a bus that’ll never come. Oh, and you give these puppets the faces of all the dead people from the village. Um. Ms. Ayano Tsukimi is so lovely, mind you, and her loneliness is very touching, but I haven’t decided yet whether her work is really “cheerful” and poetic, as some say, or rather grotesque and disturbing. You decide.
  • If you can readItalian well, there is a beautiful and fascinating study by Giuditta Failli on the irruption of the Marvelous in medieval culture starting from the 12th century: lots of monsters, skeleton armies, apparitions of demons and ghosts. Here is the first part and the second part. (Thanks, Pasifae!)

  • What is this strange pattern above? It is the demonstration that you can always think outside the box.
    Welcome to the world of heterodox musical notations.
  • But then again music is supposed to be playful, experimental, some kind of alchemy in the true sense of the term — it’s all about using the elements of the world in order to transcend them, through the manipulation and fusion of their sounds. Here’s another great nonconformist, Hermeto Pascoal, who in this video is intent on playing a freaking lagoon.
  • I am going to seek a great perhaps“, said François Rabelais as he laid dying.
    Now I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark“, Thomas Hobbes whispered.
    Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” Karl Marx muttered in his last breath.
    Have you prepared your grand, romantic, memorable last words? Well, too bad that you probably won’t get to say them. Here is an interesting article on what people really say while they’re dying, and why it might be important to study how we communicate during our last moments.
  • Speaking of last words, my favorite ones must be those pronounced by John Sedgwick on May 9, 1864 during the Battle of Spotsylvania. The heroic general urged his soldiers not to retreat: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Soon after he had said this, a bullet reached him under his left eye, killing him on the spot.

Sedgwick: 0 – Karma: 1.

  • Let’s get this party started!” These cheerful and jovial gentlemen who, with admirable enthusiasm, pop their eyes out of their sockets with knives, are celebrating the Urs festival, an event held every year at Ajmer in Rajasthan to commemorate the death of Sufi master Moʿinoddin Cishti. You can find more photos of this merry custom in this article.
  • And finally here is a really wonderful short film, recommended by my friend Ferdinando Buscema. Enjoy it, because it is the summary of all that is beautiful in mankind: our ability to search for meaning in little things, through work and creation, and the will to recognize the universal even in the humblest, most ordinary objects.

 

Hatari

Article by guestblogger Verina Romagna

The 2019 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest is open, the audience waves their flags in the stalls or collapses on the couch at home to watch the live event on TV: everyone is dazzled by the glittering, ever-smiling singers, by catchy songs obsessively repeating “love, love, love”.
It is now Iceland’s turn, a small competitor which never turned out to be very successful or surprising, and suddenly the stage turns blood red. With a harsh metallic beat, the scene is revealed: there’s a cage, and a group of androgynous creatures dressed in leather and latex; one of the singers lies like a dying man on a staircase; the other does not sing, he screams from the top of his lungs. With a growl that is not wild or liberating, but rather cold and hallucinated, the lyrics deliver a terrible message: HATRIÐ MUN SIGRA, “hatred will prevail”.

“What’s this? How could this happen?”, the shocked audience ask themselves.
Let’s take a step back.


Four years ago, on a bright summer evening, as the midnight sun was shining, two boys strolled through Reykjavík contemplating the rise of populism, the ruin of capitalism and the crimes of growing individualism in Europe. To them, the only possible answer was: Hatari.

Meet the band

Hatari translates as “haters”. The band defines itself as an “award-winning performative, anti-capitalist, anti-systemic, industrial, techno-dystopic, BDSM” band, modifying and adding adjectives at their will. Hatari is a multimedia project, chaired by a nebulous company going by the suspicious name of Svikamylla ehf. (“Relentless Scam/Web of Lies Inc. “).

The project is based on the musical band founded by the two boys of the story, singers Klemens Hannigan and Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson, together with their “drummer gimp” Einar Hrafn Stefánsson. Joining the trio is a variable team of performers, dancers, choreographers, visual artists and independent stylists responsible for a keenly designed fetish wardrobe, as well as a series of branded gym wear for the band’s moments of relax.

The legend of Hatari’s foundation is a brazen ironic hoax, regularly administered to the press by Klemens and Matthías, but there are some irrefutable facts: Hatari has indeed won several awards, and most of its members actually graduated from the Art Academy of Reykjavík. Matthías, aged twenty-five, already gained some recognition as a playwright and his writing is at the heart of Hatari’s nihilistic lyrics. Klemens is a carpenter and set designer, Einar also plays in the indie-pop band Vök.

Defining Hatari’s musical genre is a tricky task, because the band is eager to reinvent its style whenever it gets too close to being apprehended. Asking Klemens or Matthías will result in the usual long list of adjectives created on the spot: it might start off with almost fitting terms such as “techno-punk”, but will soon turn to “pop”, “bondage” and “doomsday”, and eventually end up being defined as “cabaret” and “bonanza”. Among their musical influences are Rammstein, Die Antwoord, Rage Against The Machine, Abba (“if only they were more Marxist“), the Spice Girls, Naomi Kline, Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump and Theresa May.

Hatari’s songs feature an electronic rhythmic base, enhanced by Einar’s live drumming, and two contrasting voices: Matthías’ growl delivers the main part, while Klemens will usually sing the melodic line in a soft, imploring and plaintive tone which can rise to a shrill falsetto, as in the song Hatrið mun sigra performed at Eurovision.

Music, however, is just one specific feature in Hatari’s wider concept, which is carried out through different performances: their act consists in staging a fascist dystopia set at the end of humanity, in the unmasking of the relentless scam we are subjected to in everyday life, in dismantling capitalism… and maybe, in the meantime, sell some CDs and T-shirts. After all, as the band put it, “it’s not cheap to bring down capitalism“.

Hatari’s key feature is precisely this love of contradiction, paradox, opposition. The BDSM clothing aesthetic is deemed necessary, because BDSM “liberates you, but it constrains you at the same time […], just like capitalism“.
But their use of contrast is also evident in the relationship between the singers Klemens and Matthías, a dualism ceaselessly exhibited on and off stage, which, as we shall see, might be the true focus of the entire project.

Hatari’s characters

Matthías, the leader of the group, plays the role of the absolute ruler and dictator in Hatari’s dystopia. He is brown-haired, cold and imposing, and his voice has a solemn and cavernous tone. The tyrant Matthías is characterized by rigidity, repressed movements, and a blank expression. He barely moves when he’s onstage, and he addresses the audience with a few controlled gestures, dry and theatrical, a Nazi-inspired reference. Angry screams rise from his granite, absent face, lost in a hateful frenzy of self-assertion. Even when he is not singing, Matthías maintains his apathetic composure; if he utters ironic and paradoxical sentences, he does so avoiding any hint of hilarity.

Klemens is Matthías’ right-hand man, an innocent martyr that the dictator subdues and persecutes. He’s a victim whose torment becomes obscene ecstasy: Klemens represents the compassionate undertaker of a dying humanity. He is small, with blond or sometimes bright-red hair, sparkling and ephebic. Like Matthías, he exhibits Hatari’s odd rhetoric with the utmost seriousness, but does not follow the same self-discipline. The inspiration for his body language and expressive range comes from a variety of traditionally feminine incarnations: the tender and fragile angel, the cheeky lolita sporting a blatant look, the bored prostitute, the sleepy men-eating vamp.

Beside a frozen Matthías, Klemens staggers without peace along the stage and dances to the rhythm. His arms are raised, hips swaying, his body is softly disjointed, keeping the pelvis as a center of gravity. With his skimpy costumes and orgasmic moans, Klemens becomes the spokesperson for the erotic element in Hatari’s performance: he symbolizes light, life, sex, against the darkness and dryness of Matthías.

Einar, the drummer gimp, is a silent character. But then again, he always wears a studded leather mask which hides the lower half of his face, limiting his communication possibilities. Contact lenses blacken his sclera, or narrow the pupil, so that his features are unrecognizable and the only noticeable trait is his gigantic stature.

During performances Einar beats on the drums with a metronome’s stolidity, or he spins around a spiked mace. Sometimes he just stands motionless behind the band and stares at the audience, like a fearsome Golem disguised as a sex toy. The only sentence he has spoken so far, the one time Klemens generously opened the zipper over his mouth, is the prophetic title of the song Hatrið mun sigra.

Some dancers who collaborate in Hatari’s performances complete the whole picture: the elegant and lanky slave Sigurður Andrean Sigurgeirsson and the pale, robotic dominatrices Sólbjört Sigurðardóttir and Ástrós Guðjónsdóttir. Female dancers are no less dressed than men, and even if they happen to interact with male performers, they never do so in an allusive way: in Hatari’s choreography the sensuality remains exclusively homoerotic and masculine.

Rise and scandal at the Eurovision

So how could this freakshow ever get to arrive at Eurovision?
The first step was to win the Söngvakeppnin, the Icelandic musical competition where every year the national representative at Eurovision is chosen.
The band’s participation in a television pop competition made a sensation, not only because so far the band only played the underground scene, but also because Hatari in theory just split up – with a farewell concert and a press statement on Iceland Music News (the “most honest information channel in Iceland“, actually another fictitious company of theirs). The motivation behind the split up is the aknwledgemtn that their pojects has failed: “We could not bring an end to capitalism, in the two years we gave ourselves“. But this farewell lasted just ten days.
Their taking part in Söngvakeppnin was announced with a promotional video designed to reassure the event’s pop audience: in the video, the smiling group is dressed in middle-class clothes (Einar’s without his trademark mask, for the first time ) and gets together to eat a cake. In order to make this family picture more intimate, Klemens’ daughter also participates, along with the daughter of Einar and Sólbjört, who are engaged in private life.
Did Hatari become a family-friendly and bourgeois band? Not exactly: the script of the video is a copycat of the electoral campaign of Bjarni Benediktsson, a controversial politician who devotes himself to cake design.

When, during the award ceremony, Hatari was proclaimed the winner, taking everyone by surprise, Matthías nodded condescendingly and repeated Hatari’s leitmotiv: “Everything’s according to the plan“. Capitalism shall be dismantled starting from the Eurovision contest, he reasoned, since having Hatari as national representative will at least cause the collapse of the Icelandic economy. Hatari already prepared an apology letter to the government, in case of victory.

So let’s get back to the Eurovision, a festival that supports peace and friendship among peoples. The 2019 edition took place in Israel, in Tel Aviv, in the scenario of an occupation that is not at all peaceful and inclusive.
It was clear that Hatari was the ideal candidate to exploit this paradox, and the band was seen as an inconvenient competitor since their first public statements. The group clamied to be backed by an imaginary sponsor, a carbonated water called SodaDream – which echoes the name of the Israeli brand SodaStream but which unlike the latter “has never operated in any kind of occupied territory“, as Hatari was eager to specify.
A video appeared in which the band challenged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a match of glíma (Icelandic wrestling), raffling Icelandic or Israeli territories to be colonized at will by the winner.

In the European Broadcasting Union headquarters, anxiety was growing about Hatari’s stunts and interviews: what is this “plan” they were constantly talking about? Were they planning to disregard the competition guidelines?
Warned by the EBU, Hatari agreed to change their attitude: they switched to a more glittering look, and shunned any question that could can be seen as political, including the ones about their favorite foods. They made it clear that their song Hatrið mun sigra wasn’t really meant to incite hatred, but rather to inspire the same spirit of union at the base of Eurovision: an invitation to love, before Hatari’s dystopia might come true.

Everyone began to relax. All in all, maybe Hatari were just a clique of funny jokers, and any Eurovision edition must have their “freak” contestants. As the final evening approached, it seemed clear enough that no such thing as “the plan” really existed. The very idea of bringing capitalism to an end was nothing but a joke.

But then, just as the final score was being announced, the unthinkable happened. While the band was to appear live from the Eurovision’s “green room”, a second before going on air, Matthias exchanged a quick nod with Klemens.
He then extracted from one of his kinky boots some scarves decorated with the Palestinian flag, which the band secretly managed to smuggle past the Israeli military checkpoints.

As soon as it was announced that Iceland had gained tenth place, and as the crowd booed, security broke in to seize the scarves. Meanwhile, on Hatari’s Instagram profile, a giant Palestine flag appeared, while on YouTube a new videoclip was published: a collaboration with Palestinian gay artist Bashar Murad, shot in the desert of Jericho.

Male intimacy, the ultimate provocation

Besides their transparent political alignment, and having the nerve to remind the Eurovision audience that we do not live in the best possible world, Hatari also offered one final provocation – a perhaps more subtle but insidious provocation, destined to polarize and upset even their fans: the emotional and physical harmony between Klemens and Matthías.

In public appearances Klemens and Matthías coordinate perfectly their gestures and words, finishing each other’s sentences and sometimes even talking in sync. Yet sometimes the dynamics of domination and submission they exhibit during their musical performances seem to reverse: one of their running gags during the interviews is Klemens whispering some words in the ear of his “master” Matthías, who then just reports them impassively.

Still, what’s really confusing to the public is not even this inversion of dom/sub roles, but rather the peculiar intimacy between the two characters.
Klemens often leans against Matthías and reclines his head on his partner’s shoulder; Matthías, on the other hand, holds his friend to his chest, wraps him in his arms with a protective attitude.


The two singers claim to have a special, intense and long-standing relationship: Klemens supports and encourages the stoic Matthías to express himself completely, while Matthías acts like a shield and safe haven for that “very unconstrained emotional being”. They are two opposites completing each other, the feminine and the masculine, the Yin and the Yang.
Yet – and here is where gender prejudice arise – the two singers are cousins, childhood friends and above all heterosexuals.

The reactions are of dismay. “Impossible! Are they bisexual? Is it just a hoax? They must be lovers! ”
It seems that the public prefers to imagine a homosexual incest, rather than admitting that two heterosexual males can share such a mutual trust and fondness for physical contact; the affection and tenderness Klemens and Matthias show during their effusions is an even stronger taboo than homosexuality, as it seems to question the traditional and all too fragile concept of masculinity.

In spite of all their paraphernalia, their trickster attitude, their parodistic smoke screens and raw, gloomy aesthetics, Hatari’s real message lies in the group dynamics, which stand out as a true antidote. They give each other strength and courage, they trust in one another, they consciously abandon their bodies in the hands of their fellow members. They know how to nurture each other’s most unruly and dark sides, and how to mix them as if they were ingredients of a cake “full of love, but a bit sticky“.

Hatari’s quixotic struggle against capitalism is perhaps just another one of their jokes; yet if we want to avoid living in the toxic and deadly world they foreshadow, our only tools are empathy, trust, respect, bonding.
We just need someone to accept us, support us and – why not – cuddle us, without fear of ridicule, without it making us feel less masculine; here lies the strength we need to express ourselves.
And when self-expression, creativity and vitality are allowed to shine, then hatred cannot prevail.

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 4

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 4 – THE SUN, THE MOON AND THE STARS

The well-known detail: It’s dawn. Same as every morning, the alarm goes off at 7.30: while we were asleep, time continued to go by. Another day is gone and now we have to wake up and face the future that is waiting for us.

The background: When we think about the passing of time, in our mind we picture a kind of road or ribbon unravelling through a figurative landscape. The future is in front of us and the past behind us. Everything is in constant motion: we move forward on the time line (“we’re getting closer to the end of the year”), but the flow is actually continuous and so the landscape is inevitably sliding towards us as well (“The end of the year’s coming”).
Whether the observer moves through the landscape or the landscape moves towards them, in both cases we always use spatial metaphors when we talk about time. But we would be wrong to believe these metaphors are the only possible ones: anthropologists and linguists who study different cultures have come across temporal models which are radically different from ours.
For many African cultures, for example, time is related to events. Therefore, it only passes if something is happening:

Europeans make mistakes when they think that people in traditional African societies are “wasting time” when sitting idly under a tree without activities. When Africans are not doing anything, they produce no happenings, no markings of rhythm, no ‘time’. […] When the time concept is event-related, it means that no event is no time. There is nothing to ‘waste’ and nothing to ‘save’. […] One logical result is that the taxi-browse (“the bus operating in the bush”) will leave, not at a fixed moment of the day, but when it is full, when it has enough passengers to pay for the fee, so that it can make the trip. Similarly, a meeting will start “when people (most of them) have come,” not at a point fixed beforehand on an abstract clock. It is the event, “it is full” or “people have come,” that triggers action, not the moment according to a measurable time standard.(1)

Also the idea that the future is in front of us and the past behind us is not universal.
For the Malagasy it is exactly the opposite: the future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us. The observer doesn’t move and time reaches them from behind. Their most common New Year’s greeting is arahaba fa tratry ny taona (“congratulations on being caught up by the new year”).
In this model, the past is ahead because it is known, and therefore visible; the future, on the contrary, must necessarily be behind us, because nobody can see it.

We can find a similar concept in the Aymara language, spoken in the Andean Highlands (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In this language, they use the word nayra, a term indicating what stands before, when talking about the past. Similarly the world for ‘back’, qhipa, also indicates the future. This concept partially derives

from the strong emphasis Aymara puts on visual perception as a source of knowledge. The Aymara language precisely distinguishes the source of knowledge of any reported information by grammatically imposing a distinction between personal and nonpersonal knowledge and by marking them with verbal inflection or syntactic structures. […] So, in Aymara, if a speaker says “Yesterday, my mother cooked potatoes,” he or she will have to indicate whether the source of knowledge is personal or nonpersonal. If the speaker meant “She cooked potatoes, but I did not see her do it”.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise that

Aymara speakers tend to speak more often and in more detail about the past than about the future. Indeed, often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it.(2)

The Fourth Lesson: The idea of time derives from the alternation of the sun and the stars, the succession of light and darkness. Just like every idea, it is relative and it changes according to historical eras, latitudes and languages. So, let’s try a little experiment. After turning off the alarm, try and imagine that the new day is behind you. You cannot face it because it’s not facing you. You cannot know what it is going to bring, but you feel it lurking behind you. This idea might sound a bit scary, but it is also liberating: you just have to yield and let the future reach you.

The first three Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here and here.

1) Ø. Dahl, “When The Future Comes From Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences For Communication”, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19:2 (1995), pp. 197-209
2) R.E. Núñez ed E. Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time”, in Cognitive Science, 30 (2006), pp. 401–450

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 10

In the 10th episode of Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the psychedelic story of crainal trepanation advocates; the african fetish hiding a dark secret; the Club that has the most macabre initiation ritual in the whole world.
[Be sure to turn on English captions]

And so we came to the conclusion … at least for this first season.
Will there be another one? Who knows?

For the moment, enjoy this last episode and consider subscribing to the channel if you haven’t yet. Cheers!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Cool 3D World

The Web coined a new vocabulary, gave birth to its own expressive instances, even elaborated an unprecedented kind of humor. With regard to “the weird“, internet users had an exceptional training ground: the now-defunct Vine platform. Here videos had to be 6-second-long, so an original and very complex aesthetic began to take form. In order to make their videos incisive, users had to come up with unsettling narrative tricks: an intelligent use of off-screen space, cross references, brilliantly interrupted climax, shock and surprise.

This was the perfect environment for New York musician and digital artist Brian Tessler, and his accomplice Jon Baken, to create their original and hugely successful project Cool 3D World.

Cool 3D World videos present the viewer with alienating situations, in which monstrous beings perform esoteric and incomprehensible actions. Through the paroxysmal distortion of their characters’ facial features (stretched or compressed to the limit of modeling possibilities, with effects that would normally be considered errors in classical 3D animation) and the build-up of illogical situations, Tessler & Baken plunge us into a sick world where anything can happen. In this universe, any unpleasant detail can hide mystical and psychedelic abysses. This is a hallucinated, exhilarating, disturbing reality yet sometimes its madness gives way to some unexpectedly poetic touches.

What sets apart the Cool 3D World duo from other artists coming from the “weird side” of the internet is their care for the visual aspect, which is always deliberately poised between the professional and the amateur, and for the alwyas great sound department curated by Tessler.
The result is some kind of animated couterpart to Bizarro Fiction; every new release raises the bar of the previous one and — despite the obvious attempt to package the perfect viral product — Cool 3D World never falls back on a repetitive narrative.

Today, Cool 3D World has a YouTube channel, an Instagram account and a Facebook page. Recently Tessler & Baken started a partnership with Adult Swim, and began experimenting with longer formats.
Here is a selection of some of their best works,.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 7

In the seventh episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the tragic and startling story of the Sutherland Sisters; a piece of the Moon which fell to Earth; a creature halfway between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 3

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 3 – EARTH

The well-known detail: We open Google Maps, a geographic atlas or any world map. We can identify the proportions of the different countries, the position of the continents, the structure of the whole globe.

Mercator projection of the Earth, Daniel R. Strebe 2011.

The background: The map we all know is untruthful. Or rather, it is a very useful tool but it is inaccurate, like the majority of the maps. The problem arises when you project the spherical surface of our planet on a two-dimensional sheet, and you obviously get a distorted image. The most famous and known projection was made by Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish astronomer and cartographer, in 1569: it owes its good fortune to its ability to represent lines of constant course as straight segments that keep the angles with the meridians, thus facilitating navigation; but in so doing, it gradually distorts the sizes of objects as the latitude increases near the poles. This means that Antarctica and Greenland appear much larger than they actually are, while landmasses near the equator appear smaller.

Mercator’s projection is not the only option. In 1973, Arno Peters published a map in which the world was divided into 100 horizontal and 100 vertical sections in order to maintain the correct sizes of the continents. Africa appears to be stretched out but South America looks correctly bigger than North America.

Gall-Peters projection of the Earth, Daniel R. Strebe 2011.

The curious thing about Peters is that he wasn’t actually a geographer, but an historian: this map was part of a wider project aiming at a total rethinking of our concept of human history. In his volume Synchronoptische Weltgeschichte (Synchronous Optical Map of World History, 1952), he tells the story of ancient Greece and Rome in parallel with the story of African, Asian and pre-Columbian people, equating all cultures in order to fight the idea of the Mediterranean basin being the cradle of civilization. This preconception is also the reason why Europe is always depicted in the centre of the maps.

Going ahead with this reasoning, another question inevitably arises: who decided that the North Pole should necessary lie on top? The poles are merely the imaginary extremities of the earth’s rotational axis, but they actually do not lie on top or at the bottom of anything, since in outer space any direction is relative.
But, even cardinal directions have political and psychological implications, as much as placing Europe at the centre of the world.
Researches show that the north-south axis ends up being associated with prejudices. In Italy, the North is associated with the idea of wealth and prosperity, the opposite of the South; in Great Britain or in France the opposite is true, and northern areas are generally considered to be poorer and needier. On a global scale, the Northern Hemisphere still represents the ‘better’ part of the world. According to some studies, it is often sufficient to reverse a map to make this cognitive bias in the observer disappear.

Map of Europe with South at the top, Tyrannus Mundi 2012.

We do not often take into consideration the metaphorical and political implications of geographic maps but they have been existing for centuries. In the Middle Ages, the “T-O maps” were quite common, for instance, as they showed the known world as a circle, the letter O, with a T inscribed inside to represent the Mediterranean Sea, dividing Europe from Asia and Africa. At the centre of these maps lied the most important city to the Christian civilization: Jerusalem. The world map appearing on the UN emblem surrounded by two olive branches conveys a completely different symbolic meaning. It represents an azimuthal equidistant projection centred on the North Pole and has been chosen in order not to give prominence to any particular country.

Orbis Terrae (T-O) map taken from the Etimologies by Saint Isidore of Seville, 1472, and a version obtained with modern cartography.

The Third Lesson: If all geographic maps are distorted, the same goes for the mental maps we use every day. According to the philosopher Alfred Korzybski, all abstractions we make in order to better understand reality work only if we keep in mind that they are mere simplifications. Also, language is a system of signs and should not be confused with the objects it refers to: the word ‘snow’ is not white, a map is not the territory, judging people ‘bad’ on the basis of their actions is an oversimplification. As we saw with the Mercator projection, having a clear “world view” – always discerning north from south, right from wrong, black from white – can be useful and convenient provided we don’t believe too much in it, risking to forget the vast complexity of the real world.

The first two Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here.

Aristotle’s Perversion

The ladies and gentlemen you see above are practicing the sexual roleplay called pony play, in which one of the two participants takes on the role of the horse and the other of the jockey. This is a quirky niche within the wider field of dom/sub relationships, yet according to the alternative sexuality expert Ayzad

aficionados can reach impressive levels of specialization: there are those who prefer working on posture and those who organize real races on the track, some live it as a sexual variant while others tend to focus on the psychological experience. Ponygirls often report loving this game because it allows them to regress to a primordial perception of the world, in which every feeling is experienced with greater intensity: many describe reverting to their usual “human condition” as harsh and unpleasant. Although there are no precise figures, it is believed that pony play is actively practiced by no more than 2,000 people worldwide, yet this fantasy is appreciated by a far greater number of sympathizers.

Ayzad, XXX. Il dizionario del sesso insolito, Castelvecchi. Edizione Kindle.

But few people know that this erotic mis-en-scene has an illustrious forerunner: the first unwilling ponyboy in history was none other than the greatest philosopher of ancient times1, Aristotle!

(Well, not really. But what is reality, dear Aristotle?)

At the beginning of the 1200s, in fact, a curious legend began to circulate: the story featured Aristotle secretly falling in love with Phyllis, wife of Alexander the Macedonian (who was a pupil of the great philosopher) .
Phyllis, a beautiful and shrewd woman, decided to exploit Aristotle’s infatuation to teach a lesson to her husband, who was neglecting her by spending whole days with his mentor. So she told Aristotle that she would grant him her favors if he agreed to let her ride on his back. Blinded by passion, the philosopher accepted and Phyllis arranged for Alexander the Great to witness, unseen, this comic and humiliating scene.

The story, mentioned for the first time in a sermon by Jacques de Vitry, became immediately widespread in popular iconography, so much so that it was represented in etchings, sculptures, furnishing objects, etc. To understand its fortune we must focus for a moment on its two main protagonists.

First of all, Aristotle: why is he the victim of the satire? Why targeting a philosopher, and not for instance a king or a Pope?
The joke worked on different levels: the most educated could read it as a roast of the Aristotelian doctrine of enkráteia, i.e. temperance, or knowing how to judge the pros and cons of pleasures, knowing how to hold back and dominate, the ability to maintain full control over oneself and one’s own ethical values.
But even the less educated understood that this story was meant to poke fun at the hypocrisy of all philosophers — always preaching about morality, quibbling about virtue, advocating detachment from pleasures and instincts. In short, the story mocked those who love to put theirselves on a pedestal and teach about right and wrong.

On the other hand, there was Phyllis. What was her function within the story?
At first glance the anecdote may seem a classic medieval exemplum designed to warn against the dangerous, treacherous nature of women. A cautionary tale showing how manipulative a woman could be, clever enough to subdue and seduce even the most excellent minds.
But perhaps things are not that simple, as we will see.

And finally there’s the act of riding, which implies a further ambiguity of a sexual nature: did this particular type of humiliation hide an erotic allusion? Was it a domination fantasy, or did it instead symbolize a gallant disposition to serve and submit to the beloved maiden fair?

To better understand the context of the story of Phyllis and Aristotle, we must inscribe it in the broader medieval topos of the “Power of Women” (Weibermacht in German).
For example, a very similar anecdote saw Virgil in love with a woman, sometimes called Lucretia, who one night gave him a rendez-vous and lowered a wicker basket from a window so he coulf be lifted up to her room; but she then hoisted the basket just halfway up the wall, leaving Virgil trapped and exposed to public mockery the following morning.

Judith beheading Holofernes, Jael driving the nail through Sisara’s temple, Salome with the head of the Baptist or Delilah defeating Samson are all instances of very popular female figures who are victorious over their male counterparts, endlessly represented in medieval iconography and literature. Another example of the Power of Women trope are funny scenes of wives bossing their husbands around — a recurring  theme called the “battle of the trousers”.
These women, whether lascivious or perfidious, are depicted as having a dangerous power over men, yet at the same time they exercise a strong erotic fascination.

The most amusing scenes — such as Aristotle turned into a horse or Virgil in the basket — were designed to arouse laughter in both men and women, and were probably also staged by comic actors: in fact the role reversal (the “Woman on Top”) has a carnivalesque flavor. In presenting a paradoxical situation, maybe these stories had the ultimate effect of reinforcing the hierarchical structure in a society dominated by males.
And yet Susan L. Smith, a major expert on the issue, is convinced that their message was not so clearcut:

the Woman on Top is best understood not as a straightforward manifestation of medieval antifeminism but as a site of contest through which conflicting ideas about gender roles could be expressed.

Susan L. Smith, Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (2006)

The fact that the story of Phyllis and Aristotle lent itself to a more complex reading is also confirmed by Amelia Soth:

It was an era in which the belief that women were inherently inferior collided with the reality of female rulers, such as Queen Elizabeth, Mary Tudor, Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Catherine of Portugal, and the archduchesses of the Netherlands, dominating the European scene. […] Yet the image remains ambiguous. Its popularity cannot be explained simply by misogyny and distrust of female power, because in its inclusion on love-tokens and in bawdy songs there is an element of delight in the unexpected reversal, the transformation of sage into beast of burden.

Perhaps even in the Middle Ages, and at the beginning of the modern period, the dynamics between genres were not so monolithic. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle had such a huge success precisely because it was susceptible to diametrically opposed interpretations: from time to time it could be used to warn against lust or, on the contrary, as a spicy and erotic anecdote (so much so that the couple was often represented in the nude).

For all these reasons, the topos never really disappeared but was subjected to many variations in the following centuries, of which historian Darin Hayton reports some tasty examples.

In 1810 the parlor games manual Le Petit Savant de Société described the “Cheval d’Aristote”, a vaguely cuckold penalty: the gentleman who had to endure it was obliged to get down on all fours and carry a lady on his back, as she received a kiss from all the other men in a circle.

The odd “Aristotle ride” also makes its appearance in advertising posters for hypnotists, a perfect example of the extravagances hypnotized spectators were allegedly forced to perform. (Speaking of the inversion of society’s rules, those two men on the left poster, who are compelled to kiss each other, are worth noting.)

In 1882 another great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, brought to the stage his own version of Phyllis and Aristotle, himself taking on the role of the horse. In the photographs, he and his friend Paul Rée are at the mercy of the whip held by Lou von Salomé (the woman Nietzsche was madly in love with).

And finally let’s go back to the present day, and to those pony guys we saw at the beginning.
Today the “perversion of Aristotle”, far from being a warning about the loss of control, has come to mean the exact opposite: it has become a way to allow free rein (pun intended) to erotc imagination.

Ponies on the Delta, a ponly play festival, is held every year in Louisiana where a few hundred enthusiasts get together to engage in trot races, obstacle races and similar activities before a panel of experts. There are online stores that specialize in selling hooves and horse suits, dozens of dedicated social media accounts, and even an underground magazine called Equus Eroticus.

Who knows what the austere Stagirite would have thought, had he known that his name was going to be associated with such follies.
In a certain sense, the figure of Aristotle was really “perverted”: the philosopher had to submit not to the imaginary woman named Phyllis, but to the apocryphal legend of which he became the unwilling protagonist.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 4

In the fourth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about the most incredible automatons in history, about the buttocks of a girl named Fanny, and about a rather unique parasite. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni