say your piece
155 30 OCTOBER 2003
The Freak Show Fringe
A Look Inside the California Institute of Abnormal Arts
Story and Photos by Stephanie Geerlings
The California Institute of Abnormal Arts celebrates old circus posters and dead French clowns who may or may not have been terrible - and may or may not have existed.

n eclectic assemblage waits to greet you. A serpentine space filled with dead clowns, pirates and movie screens featuring circus sideshows leads people through a strange serenade of freak paraphernalia.

Life is not pretty, polished or overdone. The operators of the California Institute of Abnormal Arts, or CIA, won’t try to sell you on that offense. Rather, they represent the truth and beauty of accident, thanatos and underground art.

CIA is a venue for film, installation art, performance art, music and anything else that is fucked-up enough to be banned by most other places on the basis of its similarities to a circus freak show.

The entrance is dressed in dark green foliage and colored lights. The green plants alone are enough to set it apart from its desert landscape in North Hollywood.

The district is a small art community cleverly named NoHo. Bob Ferguson, CIA co-owner, calls the district So So. It is a dangerous part of town, suffering from leftover industry as well as an art community. CIA has lost three dogs to the deadly fumes of nearby body-paint shops. The body shops are forecasted to be moved, and CIA is part of the city’s moratorium suit to move the noxious fume producers.

Carl Crew, CIA co-owner, and Ferguson became friends as apprentice embalmers in a Los Angeles mortuary. It was their deviant taste that inspired CIA. They took on third partner/producer Chris Fontanelle of The Fontanelles, a popular LA band which recently disbursed, to execute gritty media blitzes. Fontanelle does the Web site, band booking, graphics and general PR.

“I am a maximist. I never subtract, I only add,” Crew says, proud that he made up such a fitting new word. CIA is an amalgam of many bizarre things, but the theme is never lost, even under the broad category of strange.

Admission costs $10 (and remind yourself this is LA, which still puts it in the Kilby Court category of not making much money).

“I love it when people get scared. It means they’re playful,” Crew says as he stamps hands at the door. Crew believes humor comes from the unexpected.

The cleaver hand stamp gets you into the alcohol-free CIA experience. Patrons are typically older and CIA hopes to have its liquor license in February. The venue’s attendance varies from two people to 200.

The setting of CIA—including some of the regular patrons—is the blueprint for a delightfully creepy experience.

“Some people just don’t get it. They can walk through the whole space as though they have blinders on,” Ferguson says, gently looking around. The enchanting exhibits are not for everyone.

“People don’t know what to make of us weirdos. I have actually been called that,” Crew says, seeming appalled.

Crew has been a filmmaker for 15 years. He wrote and produced “The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer” (1993). Both Crew and Ferguson have worked in the industry in multiple roles and on various sets. Pieces from the “Home Show” can be found next to Egyptian heads from the “Don King Story” used as the backdrop for giant pirates. There is something to see in every corner.

CIA was originally a recording studio built in the disco era. The building was damaged and hadn’t been touched for years other than as a squat for bohemian feral city cats. “There is nothing like the wind whistling through layers of filth,” Ferguson says.

A lot of work was put into the “bombed-out hell hole” and still serves as endless potential for the creative minds of Crew and Ferguson.

The owners needed a place to hoard their artistic style. Coming from creative backgrounds, Crew and Ferguson sympathized with the need for artists to have a proper workspace. They first created CIA for the strict purpose of renting it out to other artists to film or throw fantastic private parties.

CIA was such a charmer that they saw a need in bringing such irregular art to the community. They closed down for three years in order to prepare it for the public. The in-house shows include the “Girly Freak” show, which turned into a national tour, “Dead Puppet Society,” a collective of bewitching puppeteers, and what Crew refers to as “secret shows,” possibly hinting at the mummified alligator boy they have made arrangement to get from “gypsies that live in Montana.”

CIA’s allure comes from not being able to grasp all of the meaning, not being allowed in unfinished classified projects and not being sure how much to believe.

The rotating visual art gallery currently features human blood paintings.

Shayne Saint John—a filmmaker with a campy love for terrible prosthetics who has had her work banned nationally—is a personal friend of CIA. The films were not banned for being explicitly lewd, but because they were unnaturally disturbing. Over the course of her filmmaking, of which she is the subject, her limbs are amputated and replaced with prosthetics. She always wears an old puppet-like mask to hide her face. Her films are usually playing on the screens at CIA and she makes regular appearances.

The bands featured at CIA are a mixture of oddities as well. The hideous—in a good way—Trash Band played and messily threw diapers and shredded books in angst through the audience while screaming “crucifixion.”

Other prop-rock CIA regulars include The Insecto Circus, which ranges from five to 23 members.

Newt, the band’s leader, strongly believes in this type of performance art and is also a documentarian for the movement.

There is no sense of over-protective security. The owners are the bouncers. Magically, even in the throws of absurdity, people tend to be decent to each other. Crew says he rarely has to throw anyone out.

“There is a dance floor, but we don’t allow any dancing,” Crew said. Responsible moshing only, he says.

“I am surprised the place isn’t just slammed,” said Steve Johns, who prefers scary clowns but was nicely dressed as a scandalous pirate.

There is an acute detail in every measure of the space. Ferguson has painted clowns, masons and two-headed babies in posterized goodness.

“My attorney called up and asked, ‘You want to rent a dead clown?’” Crew said, relating the acquisition of Achile Chatoilleu, a terrible French clown according to some. Terrible or no, many historians don’t believe he ever existed at all.

The body of the clown is preserved with arsenic and mercury, Ferguson says. “They have stopped using that as a technique,” he adds.

CIA was only supposed to be allowed to rent the body for eight months, but “I think they just forgot to pick it back up,” Crew says.

“I think it is neat to have a dead clown for people to look at,” says Haley Larsdell, a first-time patron.

There is an abundance of rotting relics caged like they have more power than is comfortable for inanimate objects.

The little dead body of the Fairy of Conwall, England lies pleasantly on her shrine. It’s possibly proportional, even a little bigger, than the head of the smallest freemason, which sits in by the beverage counter.

The arm of Lord featured on “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” is among the priced collection of mementos.

CIA was made infamous when a contestant on “Blind Date” took his date to his favorite place. The shocked date was not impressed. This lead to CIA’s exposure on “Extreme Dating.” If your date can handle and possibly embrace the experience, then you probably have quite the catch.

“Later we will have nude wrestling,” Crew said, expressing excited frivolity. Under his breath he discloses, “They will be gorillas, but oh well.”

There is always more to come from the folks at CIA. They love what they do. Not only is it an entertaining experience, it opens an art realm appreciated by few to be relished by many.

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