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April 04, 2006

Armand Leroi on Mutants (and Oprah's freak show)...

Oprah's mermaid girl.jpg

As an occasional cure for homsickness I log onto National Radio. Recently I heard an interview with Armand Leroi talking about his latest book Mutants. Armand is an evolutionary biologist with a specific interest in genetic deviation. What was most interesting to me was how what he talked about was more broadly applicable to cultural attitudes about deformity and perfection. Armand talked about how important mutations are right now in terms of pointing us to what specific genes are actually supposed to do. He spoke about how we're currently in a period of renewed interest in mutation and abnormality, but how that interest was one based on the correction, or normalisation, of such 'flaws'.

Of course he talked about the history of mutation, how early on misformed babies were assumed to be monsters or demons, and then later the freak shows of the Victorian Era (The Elephant Man in particular), which were eventually - for obvious moral reasons - what drove general interest in mutation underground.

In my thesis I want to try and negotiate/articulate my disengagement with the fundamental description of design as 'improvement'. To develop a critique of the 'cult of purity' that is pervasive in the discipline, and to justify or locate a position other to that. More than any other creative practice, I think, design (broadly) tries to base itself on what it thinks society wants/needs. It is therefore more highly susceptible to the general perceptions of the culture it plays for.

I've been watching the TV series Carnivale, which follows a travelling circus around the southwest United States during the Great Depression. Of course they have a 'Freak Show', and in one episode 'Ben' is sent out to locate 'The Lobster Boy'. Last year I watched Tod Browning's Freaks, and I have to admit that, like Diane Arbus, I've become midly fascinated by the alterations that an error in gene reproduction can cause on a human body. Following the Diane Arbus lead I've heard stories of illegal 'underground' freakshows existing in New York City well into the 1960s... but I haven't been able to find any here now. Where did they go? Is it just unethical, or don't we have mutants anymore? Are we that infected by the desire for normality that we've done away with such abnormality through science and medical technology? Yeah, kind of... Armand explains.

And then this! The Mermaid Girl on Oprah Winfrey. Is Oprah wanting to get the 'ol freak show started again? Naming the unfortunate child 'The Mermaid Girl' (a la 'The Lobster Boy' and 'The Elephant Man') would certainly suggest so, although in true Oprah fashion the child is referred to as a 'miracle'. I went to Oprah's site because I was interested in the aesthetics of 'self-help'... to find this there certainly makes me think I'm onto something...

although when I told Anna I'd been listening the interview with Armand Leroi, she said she'd just been sharing a cab with him in Wellington! Spooky serendipity... or a sign?

Posted by Luke Wood at April 4, 2006 04:46 AM


Note to self...

Robin Kinross article "The Uses Of Failure" on Dot Dot Dot website in issue #2.

Posted by: Luke at April 6, 2006 07:29 AM