Graveyard Bound

I am extremely excited to announce a project that at first glance might seem far from my usual sphere: on March 15 Graveyard Bound, the album I have been working on over the past year, will be released.

In fact, music for me has always been a fundamental aspect of the personal investigation that also inspired this blog. Those familiar with my work will find in Graveyard Bound some of the obsessions and passions that have always fueled my research: ecstasy, shadow, sacred violence, melancholy, old-time atmospheres, the marriage of cruelty and beauty, and death.

Graveyard Bound is meant to be a kind of strange blend of swamp blues, psych rock, ethnic sounds, and Gothic Americana. The album was initially conceived, during the pandemic isolation, as an experiment in remote recording, as the musicians (my old musical accomplices since we were teenagers) performed their parts while scattered in different cities across Europe. This resulted in a sound that was imperfect, sometimes shaky, brittle, creaky, but paradoxically more alive than if we had recorded together in the studio. We then mixed at the Production House in Milan, and the final mastering was done through an analog SSL mixer to give the tracks an even more vintage sound. Finally, I could not have hoped for a better album cover than the wonderful illustration signed by the great Swiss artist Thomas Ott.

The album will be released on all major streaming platforms, although by preference I suggest Bandcamp, which, by philosophy and mission, is somewhat its natural habitat, and where it is also possible to consult the lyrics of each track: the album will be available from March 15 by following this link.
On Bandcamp it will also be possible to support my work in two ways: by downloading the digital version of the album in high quality, which grants a bonus track entitled Ring-A-Round The Rosie; or by ordering the limited 12″ edition of the album printed on BioVinyl, an eco-friendly kind of vinyl, with lyrics on the inner sleeve.
With the occasion, I also opened an Instagram profile dedicated exclusively to music (you can follow it by clicking here), so as to keep blogging and music activities separate.

See you on the 15h, then: I am most curious to know what you think. Happy listening!

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 28

Here is a new collection of trivia and oddities to start the year off right; enjoy!

  • Let’s begin with an extraordinary case reported in September 1988 in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology:

The patient was a 15-year-old girl employed in a local bar. She was admitted to hospital after a knife fight involving her, a former lover and a new boyfriend. Who exactly stabbed whom was not quite clear but all three participants in the small war were admitted with knife injuries. The girl had some minor lacerations of the left hand and a single stab-wound in the upper abdomen.

The laparotomy revealed two holes in her stomach, resulting from a single stab wound; the stomach was empty and no gastric fluid spillage was noted in the abdomen, so the doctors sutured the wound and the young patient fully recovered within 10 days.
The bad story seemed to be resolved when, precisely 278 days later, the girl came back to the hospital with sharp pains in her abdomen, and as soon as they saw her the doctors immediately understood that the young woman was pregnant and about to give birth. On closer examination, however, there came a surprise: although the uterus was contracting normally and the cervix was almost fully dilated, the patient had no vagina. Between the labia minora, below the urethral meatus, there was only a shallow skin dimple. The baby, a perfectly healthy male, was delivered by cesarean section, but at that point

curiosity could not be contained any longer and the patient was interviewd with the help of a sympathetic nursing sister. The whole story did not become completely clear during that day but, with some subsequent inquiries, the whole saga emerged.
The patient was well aware of the fact that she had no vagina and she had started oral experiments after disappointing attempts at conventional intercourse. Just before she was stabbed in the abdomen she had practised fellatio with her new boyfriend and was caught in the act by her former lover. The fight with knives ensued. [Subsequently] she had been worried about the increase in her abdominal size but could not believe she was pregnant although it had crossed her mind more often as her girth increased and as people around her suggested that she was pregnant. […] The young mother, her family, and the likely father adapted themselves rapidly to the new situation and some cattle changed hands to prove that there were no hard feelings. […] A plausible explanation for this pregnancy is that spermatozoa gained access to the reproductive organs via the injured gastrointestinal tract. It is known that spermatozoa do not survive long in an environment with a low pH, but it is also known that saliva has a high pH and that a starved person does not produce acid under normal circumstances. […] The fact that the son resembled the father excludes an even more miraculous conception.

  • Katharina Detzel (above) was committed to a mental hospital in 1907 for performing abortions and sabotaging a railroad line in political protest. While confined in the asylum, she constructed a life-size doll with male features, using straw from her mattress. The doll provided her with venting and comfort: she punched it when she was angry and danced with it when she felt happy.
  • In Atlantic City until the 1970s there was a show, dangerous and cruel, that was all the rage: diving into the sea from 18 meters high with horses. (Thanks, Roberto!)
  • Flash news: we have two noses.

  • The facial expression these young ladies are making is called ahegao, and many of you may know that it derives from Japanese hentai in which upturned/crossed eyes, stuck-out tongue and flushing cheeks are used to represent the height of sexual arousal. This pose, which is allusive while not being explicitly pornographic, moved from comic books to the Internet in a short time, becoming a widespread phenomenon on social media. Interestingly, tracing the history of the ahegao face reveals that it owes all its fortune to Japanese censorship.
  • Let’s stay in the Land of the Rising Sun: in 1803 some strange, UFO-like vessel ran aground on the shores of Japan. Inside was a beautiful red-haired teenager, dressed in strange clothes and unable to speak Japanese. The inhabitants, convinced that she might be a princess from a distant country, and wanting to avoid trouble with the local authorities, decided… to throw her back into the sea. Truth or legend?
  • An incredible resource for all artists, and more: J.G. Heck’s Iconographic Encyclopedia, published between 1849 and 1851, has been digitized in a new interactive form that includes more than 13,000 spectacular illustrations. (In each section, the “Plates only” button at the top allows you to exclude the text.)

  • Above is one of the small robots appearing in the science fiction film Silent Running (1972), capable of moving in a funny, almost human-like manner. A very thorough article reveals their “secret”: they were basically costumes operated by legless actors. Director Douglas Trumbull, who at the time was accused of being insensitive about employing disabled people, recalls in interviews that the four actors actually had a great time and were handsomely paid for their job.
  • Speaking of cinema, here is some utter genius at work. Starting in the 1930s, director Melton Barker made the same film, The Kidnappers Foil, more than 130 times, using the same script and largely the same shots. The subject was basic: a little girl named Betty Davis is kidnapped on her birthday; the town’s children, attracted by the reward put up by the missing girl’s father, organize several search parties; they finally succeed in rescuing her, and in the finale a big party erupts in which the children perform dances and musical numbers.
    What, then, was Barker’s gimmick? The film was played exclusively by the children residing in the town where he was staying at the time. Parents gladly paid a small fee for their children to be immortalized on film; within a few weeks of the filming being finished, the movie was ready to be shown in local movie theaters, to the delight of all the residents.
    In this way, moving from town to town across the United States, Melton Barker was able to sustain himself for 40 years. In 2012 the few surviving prints of The Kidnappers Foil were added to the National Film Registry for preservation as historically significant; you can see some versions of the film on this website.
  • In Lviv, during the Nazi occupation, many Polish intellectuals managed to avoid concentration camps and receive additional food rations by undertaking a singular job: louse-feeder. (Thanks, Roberto!)

  • The story of the leg of Santa Anna — a Mexican politician, general, dictator, and president — is almost as adventurous as that of its owner. The Generalisimo had been wounded in 1838 by cannon fire during a battle against the French, and had suffered an amputation below his left knee. He had initially buried the leg on his property in Vera Cruz. Once he became president of Mexico again in 1842, he had his leg exhumed and taken, in a luxurious ornate carriage, to Mexico City; there he had prepared an elaborate state funeral for his amputated limb, burying it in a small glass coffin. Two years later, the Santa Anna government was overthrown and a mob of rioters, in addition to destroying the president’s statues, dug up his leg and dragged it through the streets until there was nothing left of it.
    After regaining power, during the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, Santa Anna was attacked by surprise while he was having lunch. Fleeing in a hurry, he left behind his wooden leg: it was collected as a trophy by U.S. infantry soldiers. That is why the prosthesis pictured above is still in the Illinois State Military Museum today.
  • And let’s talk about animals: in Brazil, in the small seaside town of Laguna, residents and dolphins have been joining forces to fish for 140 years. Only there is some doubt that it is the dolphins who have trained the humans.
  • News from last year but which for some reason I find touching: some archaeologists are hunting for the grave of Nancy, an elephantess who escaped from a traveling circus in 1891.
  • And finally, here is a spider doing a cartwheel (via Bestiale):

That’s all, see you next time!

Happy 2024!

In perhaps a somewhat snobbish way, I have always given little thought to established holidays or conventional subdivisions of the continuum into months, days, minutes; yet today, as I find myself in a phase of renewal, I am thankful that my fellow human beings invented New Year’s Eve!
Indeed the concept of moving forward, of changing, of a new beginning that this day symbolizes — all these ideas are especially comforting when one is in a time of transition.
And I really am off to a new start: the year that has just begun promises to be challenging, but dense with initiatives that I am excited about. Among the many projects on the horizon, some of which are already in the works, there is one that is especially close to my heart and which I will announce very shortly.

It’s off again indeed, and off again together: as always, the fundamental stimulus comes to me from the affection and enthusiasm you guys show me daily with messages, comments, e-mails etc., and it is the fantastic community created over the years, bringing together all of us weird and eclectic wonder-seekers, that gives me the real motivation to continue.

And while we are at it, this is not something I say often, however if you find my work interesting and would like to buy me a coffee or support me in a more concrete way, you might consider donating via PayPal. In fact, expenses are always heavy, even just to run this site, which is subject to significant traffic spikes and therefore needs large resources to stay up; any help is appreciated.

That said, I would like to thank you and wish you a very weird 2024: our usual appointment is at the edge of what is commonly known, to discover more strange, disturbing, surprising wonders… you know where to find me!

The fantastic visions of Steven Arnold

It is unfair and inexplicable that the figure of Steven Arnold, an eclectic and highly refined artist and influencer ante litteram, has remained so little known: it is only in recent years that people have begun to recognize his exceptional weight, from his visionary work to his central role in the cultural scene of the 30-year period from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Born on May 18, 1943, in Oakland, California, Steven showed a creative nature early on: as a child he spent hours locked in the attic of his home playing with puppets, for which he constructed elaborate costumes. In a sense he never stopped doing this until the end of his life, although by then, instead of puppets, he now had flesh-and-blood models and spectacular sets that he personally composed.
In high school Steven met Pandora (who was to become his muse, collaborator, and best friend), with whom he spent afternoons in his bedroom losing himself in reveries fueled by joints, mysticism, and playful cross-dressing.

In 1961, Arnold won a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. In the summer of 1963 he made a move to Paris, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, but soon becoming bored, he moved to Formentera where he stayed for three months in a hippie commune. There he tried LSD for the first time, an experience that changed his life, as he later recounted: “this new drug was so euphoric and visionary, so positive and mind expanding. I ascended to another dimension, one so beautiful and spiritual that I was never the same.”

Upon returning to the United States, he devoted himself to his passion for filmmaking, and from the start the prospects were encouraging: his graduation short film, Messages, Messages, was screened at Cannes and other prestigious festivals
For the premiere in San Francisco in February 1968, Arnold decided that he would go big and, together with his collaborator Michael Wiese, rented the Palace Theatre for one evening; in addition to his short film, the evening included screenings of a number of French films selected by Arnold (including works by Méliès and Man Ray). The initiative was a resounding success, with 2,000 tickets sold, so much so that the theater managers suggested that Arnold curate a weekly film review.

Thus, a month later, the Nocturnal Dream Show was born, the very first example of a midnight movies review in history.
The themed evenings, complete with dress code, that Arnold organized at the Palace were not only a chance to see extremely rare films − such silent masterpieces as Metropolis, Betty Boop cartoons, old surrealist films, early twentieth-century pornography − but they soon became a cult phenomenon and a fixture for the Bay Area’s hippie counterculture.

The Nocturnal Dream Shows were also the moment when Steven Arnold’s ability to act as an “attractor” emerged, as he created crazy and colorful happenings, capable of bringing different worlds together: in the audience, among kids smoking pot or engaging in free love, it was not uncommon to run into actors, artists and writers of the caliber of George Harrison, Ellen Burstyn, Janis Joplin, Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams.

During those years Arnold, while staying out of the spotlight, had a major influence on fashion and visual culture: not only did he design some of the first rock posters for the famous Matrix nightclub (where the “San Francisco sound” was historically born), or invented the look that would be made famous a few years later by Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but he also gave for the first time the opportunity to perform on a stage to The Cockettes, a drag and psychedelic theater collective that immediately became a cornerstone of the San Francisco underground scene.

Meanwhile, Arnold also continued his directing career, signing in 1971 Luminous Procuress, an experimental and lysergic feature film that once again was acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival.
Two years later, Arnold met Salvador Dali at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where the Surrealist painter was residing with his entourage. Dali, who was certainly not known for the generosity of his compliments, exploded into unprecedented enthusiasm when he saw Arnold’s work. He rented the hotel’s huge ballroom to screen Luminous Procuress; the entire New York elite, including Andy Warhol, attended the event.

From that moment on, Arnold became his protégé. He often sat at Dali’s feet like an adept before his guru, or by his side during dinner, and soon the two became inseparable. In the alternate reality they created together, they spent hours devising fantastical garments, dreamlike designs and surreal inventions
The following year Dalí invited him to Spain to work on the decorations of his Theater-Museum in Figueres. After attending the opening, he definitely became a favorite of Dali, who called him the Prince of his Court of Miracles — that is, the parterre of stars who revolved around him, from Amanda Lear to Marianne Faithfull, from Mick Jagger to David Bowie.

It was after his experience with Salvador Dali in the mid-1970s that Steven Arnold found his most congenial medium of expression: photography.
He rented an abandoned pretzel factory in Los Angeles, which he renamed Zanzibar Studios and turned into his laboratory. There he began shooting his extraordinary black-and-white tableau vivants, creating elaborate, baroque sets from the endless props and clothes he had collected over the years.

Steven Arnold’s photographs, to which he ascribed spiritual value and which he approached as meditation exercises, propose a veritable surreal cosmology in which reverence for the divine is diluted by a blunt camp humor. Here angelic and ethereal figures are depicted through a seductive, erotically charged carnality in a playful celebration of fluidity (ahead of its time). It is no coincidence that one of the deities Arnold was most fond of was Guanyin, the “drag” Buddha who is depicted in female form in parts of East Asia.

The density of the visual layout and the striking attention to detail also suggest an essential element of Arnold’s photography: even when he engages in ironic, queer reworking of religious icons, he shows no intent to shock the viewer. On the contrary, what emerges is the search for a language well-suited for his generation, capable of approaching mysticism and the sacred in a joyful and imaginative way. The images on which his pictures are based, in fact, often came to him in his dreams or during meditation; transposing these visions thus became a shamanic, almost priestly act, and at the same time theatrical, as if he was staging the unrepresentable.

From time to time inspired by his dream world, religions and Jungian archetypes, Arnold produced a vast body of photographs, sketches, sculptures and assemblages. At the same time he cultivated extensive social relationships, and his studio soon became a new hub for gatherings, daily parties and aperitifs attended by famous names and emerging artists.
Unfortunately, in 1988, just when he was at the height of his popularity, Arnold received the most dreaded diagnosis, that of AIDS.

In this excerpt from an interview with Ellen Burstyn, his close friend, we see him address the subject with the grace and irony that were his hallmarks.

After his death in 1994, Steven Arnold’s name and work remained relatively unknown to the general public for a long time.
Recently, thanks in part to the work of Vishnu Dass, director of the Steven Arnold Museum and Archives (and author of a documentary about the artist’s eccentric and unconventional life), his importance is beginning to be recognized — not only as a visual artist of great originality, but as a pioneering figure in queer culture as well. As Dass himself stated in an interview, “the things that he was really nurturing and fostering in his studio spaces are what people are fighting for in the culture at large today; and he had already made that a reality within the walls of his studios in the Sixties.”

Here is the wonderful Instagram page of the Steven Arnold Archives.

The Village of Puppets

A few days ago I visited Maranzana, a village in Monferrato known to be populated by strange inhabitants…
(Turn on English subtitles!)

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 27

The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.
(Dorothy Parker)

Welcome back! Before we dive into our new harvest of wonders, I begin by inviting you on Sunday, April 16 at Defrag in Rome: I will be giving a talk in the truly extraordinary context of Danza Macabra Expo, an event curated by CRUSH – Collective Visual Art. In addition to a collective art exhibition, over the course of this month the event will be enriched by a packed schedule of events including performances, live music, role-playing games, workshops and lectures. You can take a look at the program here.

And now, on with the weird stuff!

Musical Sadisms

  • In 2021 at the Nagasaki Zoo, the female gibbon Momo gave birth to a cub. In itself this would not be big news, except that Momo lives alone and has never had contact with other males. How could this virginal conception happen? After two years of research, and DNA tests, those in charge came to the conclusion that Momo became pregnant… through a glory hole.
  • In Shakespeare’s plays, monstrosity is made explicit in deformed bodies, nefarious instincts, and through language itself. Michela Compagnoni has explored all this in a new book reviewed in this insightful and fascinating article [in Italian]. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • The first lab-grown meat burger was presented in London 10 years ago. Since then, technologies have evolved, costs are gradually coming down, and synthetic meat seems to be on its way to becoming a possible ethical and ecological alternative to traditional meat in the future. But at this point, why limit ourselves to producing beef slices when we can create recipes from extinct animals?
    The one below, produced by an Australian company, is a mega-meatball made from the DNA of a mammoth.
    Yet I would not recommend tasting it, because the scientists themselves have no idea of the allergic problems a 5,000-year-old protein could cause in humans. (And so goes my idea for a new fast food chain, “Jurassic Pork.”)

  • On L’indiscreto, a great piece by Alessio Montagner [in Italian] on Jesus’ penis, Mary’s vagina and more generally the symbolic density of genitalia in sacred art. (Thanks, Gaberricci!)
  • Feast your eyes on these tears.
  • Park Van Tassel (1853-1930) was an American aerial stunt pioneer. Originally a bartender in Albuquerque, he became interested in areostatic flying beginning in 1879 and decided to become a professional daredevil; his performances consisted of parachuting from his hot air balloon. But although today he is considered an important figure for some technical innovations and for introducing women (i.e., his wife and daughters) to the sport, at the time not everyone thought him particularly skilled. Many of his shenanigans did not end exactly as planned, and Van Tassel often ended up injuring himself or crashing-landing so much so that the crowd often booed him or even sabotaged the balloon. As Jan Bondeson reports in Strange Victoriana, in one case a spectator ended up lying unconscious because of a ballast carelessly thrown by Van Tassel; in another, the reckless aeronaut risked being killed when his legs got caught in the balloon’s support ropes while his parachute had already opened; in yet another, a wedding that was to take place in the air had to be cancelled because no priest or justice of the peace agreed (understandably) to ascend in a balloon along with Van Tassel.
    And they were right: flying with him was really not good business, as the 1889 incident in Honolulu tragically demonstrated. Van Tassel and his co-pilot Joe Lawrence had just taken flight in front of a cheering crowd when the hot air balloon was displaced by the wind toward the ocean; unable to control it, Van Tassel and his colleague jumped by parachute, but as they gently descended they realized that an even worse fate awaited them below… Van Tassel managed to reach the shore unharmed, but the poor assistant ended up mauled by sharks.

  • In the first of my Milan anatomy lectures, I mentioned a peculiar court proceeding that took place in France in 1659, in which on trial came the poor erectile capacities of a nobleman, accused by his wife of failing to fulfill his marital duties — impotence, at the time, was almost the only reason for a woman to file for divorce. This trial, in which the defendant had to prove his manhood by attempting copulation before an attentive jury of doctors and magistrates, was not an isolated case. Here is an article about the history of impotence trials.
  • There are those who look at a photo from when they were 16 years old, think back to that time and say, “I was a little immature, but I was still me after all.” And there are those who wonder, “but was that really me?” as if they no longer recognize themselves.
    Some of us, in short, naturally see a continuity (a “narrative arc,” as a screenwriter would put it) in our life experience, while others feel subject to metamorphoses so continuous and profound that the past is crowded with many outdated and now extraneous versions of themselves. I certainly belong to the second category.
    By now there is a good deal of psychological research showing precisely how perception about one’s own past identity varies greatly from person to person, so much so that scholars have even coined two terms to denote the two different types of approach. Are you continuers or dividers?
  • “It was about four bells in the middle watch, the “churchyard” watch, as the four hours after midnight is called, that it happened. We of the mate’s watch were on deck–the men for’ard, Burton and I under the break, and Mr. Thomas pacing the poop above our heads. Suddenly, apparently close aboard on the port hand, there came howling out of the darkness a most frightful, wailing cry, ghastly in its agony and intensity. Not of overpowering volume–a score of men shouting together could have raised as loud a hail-it was the indescribable calibre and agony of the shriek that almost froze the blood in our veins. […] Even the old man was awakened by it and came up on deck. Everyone was listening intensely, straining their eyes into the blackness that enveloped us. A moment or two passed and then as we listened, wondering, and silent, again that appalling scream rang out, rising to the point of almost unbearable torture and dying crazily away in broken whimperings. No one did anything, or even spoke. We stood like stones, simply staring into the mystery-laden gloom.”
    This sounds like a passage from a William Hope Hodgson short story, but instead it is a truthful account of a nighttime scream heard at sea by the crew of a sailing ship in the early twentieth century and still left unexplained.

  • How did the idea of the Martians come about? The one above is one of the maps of Mars made by Schiaparelli in the late 1800s. The astronomer christened those mysterious rectilinear formations “canals”-a term mistranslated into English as canals, which by definition implies the idea that they are artificial. Soon many other scholars became convinced that those strange structures were too regular to be mere rivers, and from there to the idea that intelligent beings might inhabit the planet’s surface was a short step. When the first probes photographed and mapped Mars more closely, it was realized that the channels were just optical illusions; but without this mistake who knows if we would ever have science fiction as we know it today.
  • At Waterloo, one of the bloodiest battles in history, 20,000 soldiers died, plus thousands of horses. But then where did all those bones end up? A recent historical study has provided a surprising answer: they were illegally unearthed between 1834 and 1860 to refine and bleach sugar.(Thanks Vito, RIP)
  • Let’s keep talking about bones. In just one year, in 1657, Genoa lost two-thirds of its population to the plague. There were so many dead that numerous mass graves had to be resorted to. One of these was found in 1835, during renovation work in the city park of Acquasola; it was then decided to move the remains to the tunnels that develop underground in the area. So even today, just a few meters below the feet of dog walkers and children playing, mountains of stacked bones hide.
    The tunnels cannot be visited, but here are some photos taken by speleologists.
  • Most minimalist deity.
  • Most ingenious funeral card.
  • Most AAARGH animal.
  • The Essentials of Smallpox is a manuscript compiled (probably in a single copy) in the late 17th or early 18th century by Japanese physician Kanda Gensen. The sheets have been worked in such a way as to illustrate the plagues of smallpox in relief.

That’s all, see you next time!

Tre appuntamenti milanesi

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italiano.

The Monk’s Secret

Here’s a new mini-video: a seventeenth-century engraving hides a risqué secret.

[Turn on English subtitles!]