Cardoso Flea Circus

“Cardoso Flea Circus Video”, Cantrills Filmnotes, Numbers 87,88, December 1997, pp4-8.

Cardoso Flea Circus Video

text by Ross Rudesch Harley

In a world of sophisticated digital technology, the internet, and global telecommunications, it’s hard to believe that something as arcane, simple and extraordinary as a circus of educated fleas could possibly exist. It does. Colombian-born artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso has created one.

Flea circuses are the product of a bygone era, a time when seeing with your own eyes constituted one of the most reliable tests of truth. Nowa- days we find it much harder to believe what we see.

Flea circuses are part of a long tradition of natural curiosities exhibited to the public by expert showmen and entrepreneurs. Such strange attractions were popular tests of belief, stretching the bounds of the credible and the real for purposes of amusement. The great flea entrepreneurs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attracted their audience by show- ing amazing flea stunts first-hand.

As flea circuses started to disappear from everyday life (along with the main circus star, the human flea) they entered a mythic dimension. This century, a flea circus was more likely to be seen in a Chaplin film or in a Warner Brothers cartoon than in real life. Although the flea circus always stretched the bounds of believability, perhaps this is another reason why the circus became a sign of the unverifiable. The Cardoso Flea Circus video taps into this powerful mythos.

Flea circuses all but died out in the 1950s. In their nineteenth century hey- day, the tiny insects performed before crowned heads of state. Travelling around the courts of Europe, famous flea impresarios such as Bertolotto amazed audiences with their expertly built props and highly trained performers. Members of the audience were given magnifying glasses with which to inspect the skilful performers juggling balls, walking the tightrope, or pulling tiny flea-chariots across the table. Eye-witness accounts from the early nineteenth century concur that maestro Bertolotto had the most gifted and talented troupe of performing fleas in the world.

Much has changed since then. Audiences and impresarios have generally abandoned small scale shows such as flea circuses in favour of larger more elaborate entertainments. The magnifying glass has been replaced by the video camera and specialised lens systems. Today’s carnival culture subsequently has a larger scale and a broader scope. In the age of mass media, the flea circus has a very different meaning and form.

When Cardoso revived the lost art of flea training, she thought that video would be the ultimate way to present the show. As the project grew, it became apparent that new technologies could enhance a very important aspect of earlier flea circuses: the magnified real-time performance of fleas. Put simply, the performance could be amplified to a scale that was previ- ously impossible.

It’s worth remembering that the average flea is about 1-2millimetres long. Video provided a practical solution to the problem of showing a large audi- ence small-scale action at a distance. How else could a mass audience mar- vel at the powerful Brutus, the strongest flea on earth, pulling a locomotive weighing 160,000 times his own weight? Without real time magnification, how could the entire audience see the flea ballerinas dresses in micro-tu- tus, dancing to the rhythms of tango? And what about the highwire artists defying gravity on the tightrope and swinging precariously on a miniature trapeze, not to mention Fearless Alfredo risking his life at the highdive? Even in the front row, a flea would appear little more than a big speck of dust. But when it appears in close-up on the video screen, the humble flea begins to assume 1950s sci-fi proportions. The bug-eyed-monster movies of the fifties were a definite influence on the Cardoso Flea Circus Video. Without this relatively sophisticated video equipment, specialised lighting and high tech lenses to ‘amplify’ the feats of these prodigous insects in this mini-spectacle, the detail is next to impossible to see. We could expand the scale and scope of the project in a very literal way. The educated fleas could be seen by more people (live) during the performance, and then by more people still in a (recorded) video cassette form.

In 1995 at the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s Museum of Art, Science and Human Perception, where artists do residencies and projects with scien- tists and engineers who help them create hands-on exhibits, a handheld video camera was hooked up to a live video feed. The image and sound was then ‘broadcast’ to another twenty people immediately outside, as well as to a much larger audience assembled in an adjacent theatre (capa- ble of seating around 200 people). Compare this to ten or so people who could immediately see the arena. Though this was not really a substitute for seeing the performance upclose, it gave large audiences the sense of being at the show.

Despite technical difficulties associated with low band video and poor light- ing, these ‘money shots’ of fleas performing in close-up on video screens were actually better than anything anyone in the front row could see with the naked eye. It was a strange dislocation, but one that seemed perfectly appropriate. Attending one of these screening-performance events was a bit like being in an avant garde production of a major sporting match. After her six month residency at the Exploratorium, Cardoso worked with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia to build an elaborate circus tent to house all the arenas and props used in performances. This project culminated in a performance at the Workshop’s end of year event for 1996. There were now three cameras (two SP Beta and one Sony Digital), four large video monitors, audio and video mixing, and theatrical lighting being used in each performance. The Fabric Workshop was also ar- ranging to tour the tent as part of a travelling show curated by Mary Jane Jacob entitled Changing Spaces. The curator and the Workshop’s Artistic Director, Marion Boulton Stroud, were enthusiastic about making a video that would run continuously with the installed tent on its tour, often unac- companied by a performance. I was hired by Professor Cardoso to make a short 8 minute video that would encapsulate the highlights of the fleas’ performance, and to improve upon some of the live close-up work done earlier.

We had a relatively lengthy pre-production period of six weeks to get together all the equipment we needed. Obtaining suitable lenses and lighting was especially difficult. Though there are a number of camera systems designed for microscopy or for table-top shooting, we needed to substantially modify the standard kits. Jim Frazier’s Panavision lens system would have been perfect, but there is nothing comparable available for video. In the end we used a special lens system developed by a Californian company called Innovision to shoot practically everything. This system (comprised of three interchangeable long barrel lenses for shooting at 90degree, 45degree or 180degree angles) allowed us to get very close to the fleas without losing depth of field and background focus. It was extremely important to emphasise the hand-made props and bright circus lighting that gave the flea performers context. Macro and zoom lenses couldn’t give us the results we were after (although a few zoom shots were included in the final tape).

After assmbling a small dedicated crew, we shot the video in Philadelphia over five days. With the Innovision lenses, we could track, pan, and dolly through a miniature set as if it were a large studio. The camera gives the audience access to a different world. Viewers have a sense of entering the space of the fleas. As the scale is magnified, the fleas gain more personal- ity and character. It’s not as impossible to anthropomorphise a flea as some might think!

The lighting team modified a number of small Dedo lights, fitting them with tiny gels and custom-made shapes to allow for a controlled but zany lighting style. As the entire ‘stage’ was less than a metre long, the camera gear very quickly overwhelmed the stars themselves. All this attention, for a bunch of fleas!

But this is part of the aim of the project, to exaggerate the absurdity of the enterprise. The veracity of the flea circus cannot be demonstrated without an overwhelming apparatus that records, documents and magnifies their feats out of all proportion. While the metaphoric connections to similar processes that occur daily in the mass media might not be immediately apparent to all, this is certainly part of our intention.

In this video, we deliberately avoided interrelating the world of fleas with the human world (which is mostly represented by the presence of Profes- sor Cardoso’s face). The idea was to give the viewer the ideal view of the performance, as if from the point of view of the fleas. The next stage of the project is to make another video/film of the entire 30 minute performance. This will focus more on the interaction between human and animal, a fundamental aspect of the circus, which was sidelined in the present video for reasons of time and resources.

The tape was edited at Philadelphia’s FMP studios on digital beta-cam. Although we had access to many special effects and digital processing devices, we wanted to minimise their use. Although the entire circus is, in a sense, an elaborate production staged by the human impresario, we didn’t want the tape to appear as if it was all created in a computer. Even so, many people still enquire what software we used to create the fleas! For the flea soundtrack, we commissioned New York sound artists Christian Marclay and Beo Morales. They’re both well know in avant garde music and film circles for their cut-up style sound compositions. We wanted their music and sound to give the tape a surreal, magical and comic sense. Their resulting flea soundtrack is a very apt mix of humorous, expressive and strangely eerie sounds, underscoring and giving counterpoint to the madcap and tragi-comic elements of the video.

The Cardoso Flea Circus Video elicits a strange response from people. It’s not dissimilar to audience response at the live performance: a powerful emotional fascination and a rational disbelief combine to leave the viewer in a perplexed state.

‘Did I really see what I thought I just saw? Surely not.’ You could say it produces a crisis of belief. But that’s not quite what I’d say. I prefer the language of the impresario, and invite people to:

‘See with your own eyes the most astonishing feats ever realised by these tiny insects, whose strength and ability defies the limits of imagination. It has to be seen to be believed!’

First published in Cantrills Filmnotes No87/88, Dec 1997