A Reckoning for BizarroCon

Chandler Morrison’s performance during the “Ultimate Bizarro Showdown” at BizarroCon 11, simulating sex with an aborted fetus, not only provoked a flurry of protests, it ignited a wider discussion of predatory behavior at the convention which one commenter says “has been insufficiently addressed for years.” (Warning: this article includes some descriptive details.)

The annual BizarroCon, held last weekend near Portland, OR, celebrates the work of various small press publishers of “bizarro” fiction, described by some as transgressive surrealism and associated fantasy/crime, and by Eraserhead Press publisher Rose O’Keefe, the Director of BizarroCon as something that “clearly wasn’t horror, science-fiction, fantasy, or even experimental fiction. The only real way to describe it would be: weird,” and as “the literary equivalent to cult movies. Our books are quirky, campy, freaky, funny, lewd, rude, and just out there.”

The “biggest event at BizarroCon” is The Ultimate Bizarro Showdown:

[The] banquet hall is transformed into Bizarro Thunderdome! 20 authors enter, only one leaves victorious. Each author gets 2 minutes to tell the weirdest story they can come up with to a drunk and impatient crowd. After 2 minutes, if the story entertains the audience enough they are allowed to continue. If their story fails they are fucking decapitated! The distinguished bizarro judges will choose the top three readers. Winners will receive fabulous prizes and bragging rights for a year.

Author Chandler Morrison spent more than three minutes simulating sex with a doll covered in fake blood to look like a recently extracted fetus, using a dildo positioned adroitly enough to lead some to believe he had used his penis.

Morrison is a young writer who thinks of himself in these terms:

In today’s overly sensitive snowflake society, in which art of a transgressive nature tends to be derided and scorned, Chandler brazenly dares to speak truths that others are afraid to even acknowledge to their innermost selves.  He sees the writing on the wall, and transcribes it for the world in a language as breathtaking as it is blasphemous. 

Brian Keene, a BizarroCon guest of honor and one of the event’s judges, wrote on Facebook:

Personally, I did not care for the performance.

It wasn’t because of the prosthetic penis, or because of the baby doll (the view from the judges table was that the doll looked dead and bloody — which mirrored the dead fetus of the story in question. It wasn’t until the next day, in listening to the privately shared concerns of others, that I understood that some interpreted the doll’s color as a skin tone).

The reason I didn’t care for the performance was the same reason I have never watched A SERBIAN FILM — sexual violence against children is something I abhor, and I don’t care to be exposed to the imagery, even if the imagery in question is in the context of a fiction, be it film, prose, or performance art.

My other personal issue was that, as a parent who lost three children before birth, I don’t dig dead baby jokes.

In addition, Keene now feels compelled to apologize for not putting a stop to it:

Watching the crowd from the judges table, I saw people who were clearly entertained by the performance in question. But I also saw people who were clearly upset by it. And seeing the looks on the latter group’s faces, I thought to myself, “I should stop this.” But I didn’t, and for that I apologize. I didn’t because I thought, “You’re 51, Brian. Maybe you just don’t get it.” I also think that I — quite stupidly — mistook the uneasy laughter by some in the crowd as complicity. In hindsight, it clearly wasn’t. I can’t speak for all the judges, but I echo what Gina said above about sitting there sort of stunned. I kept thinking, “Okay, this is going to go somewhere. There’s going to be a truth, or a twist, or maybe just a punchline.” But there wasn’t.

I thought perhaps the crowd would speak up at the 3-minute mark. When they didn’t, I again mistook this for “Well, they are into it, Brian, and you’re just an old mainstream guy who doesn’t get it. You speak up and vote no, and it’s just going to be another case of, ‘Brian Keene was an asshole and ruined BizarroCon’. So I didn’t.”

… I hope that the dialogue and conversation will take precedence over the finger-pointing and blame game. If anyone still needs someone to blame, then blame me. Like I said, I should have spoken up…and I didn’t, because of my own personal insecurities.

Since the convention Facebook has played host to discussion threads with hundreds of comments protesting and defending Morrison’s performance, while raising wider implications for the BizarroCon community.

Author Jennifer Robin wrote on January 21:

The realism of the performance is an issue here. The performer said he was having sex with an abortion as part of his narrative. The doll was a full-grown baby shape, not a cluster of cells. The color of the doll was a darker brownish color, not a bright blood red. Several people were taken aback by the uniform brown color of the doll and assumed that it was a racial statement meant to be shocking. As for the dildo, even men close to the stage have said it was hard to tell whether it was real or a prosthetic, and the same with the eventual cum. So I’ll shift the question to this: If the performer didn’t want to say “brown skin” he should have put more care into picking a red fake blood to cover it, because many audience members saw brown. If the performer wanted to say “abortion-fucking” and not trigger PTSD or other violation-related reactions in the crowd, a full-blown baby doll is not how to say it. How many ways can there be to say babyfucking is not a good thing to show with these props at a literary convention? The number of audience members who have condemned it should be bringing the organizers to seriously consider what damage has been done, and what they want to encourage as free speech in the year 2019.

And in case that sounded inconsistent with what people are used to from her, Robin explained:

How can I, who regularly has explored surrealist and dadaist and cathartically ritualistic performances over the course of my life, who has almost ALWAYS played devil’s advocate for free speech, how could I suddenly make a declaration that shocking for shock’s sake is low, is crass, is a form of sadism?

Well, I did. And I haven’t gone soft at all. It isn’t soft to talk about consent of an audience, or about whether the artist’s intent is to dominate a crowd and hurt them—versus illuminating concepts about the barbarism and strangeness of the human psyche.

… After a century of artists exploring actions like this, it is no longer innovative, no longer something that enhances our awareness of taboos, or starts up fresh conversations about “what the human race really is.”

It’s no longer an innovation to be naked, or cut your chest open, or have an orgy on stage, or do anything regarding blackface or incest or involving suspension or projectile vomiting or threatening to cut off an audience member’s hand. For a lot of performances like this, the idea that you are “SHOWING PEOPLE” what fear or darkness or reality or a soul is made of…is…expired.

I strongly value the existence of ritualistic theater, avant-garde art, horror and gore and darkness, but I feel that in 2019, the “edges” aren’t what they once were, and that we are facing the deepest global and existential crisis a sentient species on this planet has ever had to face.

Yes, everything we took for granted is going extinct, as are we.

Meanwhile, Morrison is not without his defenders. Monica J. O’Rourke, an author published by Eraserhead Press’ Deadite imprint, wrote on Facebook:

This is NOT directed at anyone specific. And for those who don’t know me, I’ve been around for decades and have either organized or participated in (or both) gross-out contests at several major conventions, some of which i’ve chaired or co-chaired.

Sorry, and maybe I am SOOOO not PC on this one … but if you go to a horror convention, and a gross-out contest (or even an open mic — what do you believe you’ll get at a horror convention???? especially a bizarro convention), why do you get to pick and choose what’s considered offensive? You seriously go to a gross-out contest and have triggers? Really? Were your legs broken, sweetheart, that you couldn’t get up and walk out? Have you not seen a gross-out contest before? Jesus.

O’Rourke also commented:

Censorship is censorship, regardless of the topic. This was about feelings and sensibilities being hurt in a venue where people could have walked out. BTW, some of the people in that thread complaining the loudest about that performance either 1. weren’t even in the room during the event or 2. congratulated the author at the end on his performance. Suddenly they’re all offended. And in another juicy bit of irony, these same people decrying censorship are calling for the author to be banned from future conventions and are even trying to get his book pulled. Sure doesn’t sound like kneejerk overreaction!

In contrast, Chandler Morrison has now publicly apologized:

I sincerely apologize to anyone whom I hurt with my performance at the BizarroCon Showdown. I have remained silent until now because I was listening and reflecting. I made a lot of new friends over the course of those very special few days, and I am deeply troubled that some of those friends were hurt by an act that was clearly in poor taste and insensitive to the audience to whom I was presenting. It was truly never my intent to inflict mental harm or emotional distress, but that’s no excuse, and I am genuinely sorry.

And Brian Keene offered:  

One final thought on the young author in question. I’ve seen some characterizing him as an “edgelord”. Having met him, I don’t think that is a fair characterization… From what I know of him I think this young man has a good heart, and I hope he learns from this and is given that time.

However things play out for Morrison individually, the lid has come off a much wider discussion about BizarroCon’s handling of antiharassment issues.

Michael Kazepis wrote on January 23:

There’s never really been a scene like bizarro before—genre literature that often overlaps themes of violence, fetish, fantasy, sex, and the grotesque, while encouraging people to let out their inner “weirdo/cult” selves without being shamed for what they’re into. But it’s also a scene that’s got almost no firm boundaries for what’s acceptable, for consent and respect, because all scene performances or art/literature exists in the name of free expression. And that’s what’s at the heart of all this, right? It does require noting that Rose O’Keefe, after endless criticisms of the bizarro scene being a “boy’s club” over the years, did make great effort to bring more women into the scene and largely succeeded. But with the arrival of more women, also came the arrival of some predatory shitbirds. I won’t list them here, but it’s become a thing. A similar compliment can be made of Rose reaching out for more diverse voices, LGBTQ authors.

That in mind, there is an institutional problem (and now a proportional backlash to that problem) that’s only grown over the past five or so years. Both are reinforced by those infirm boundaries, as well as inadequate responses to inappropriate conduct and a tacit enabling of the accused. Also, shutting down concerned voices as a first response has been the worst possible move this week. I realize that folks want to defend the scene from any attack, and there have been needless ones in the past, but now an outcry over a performance has become an outcry over trending sexual impropriety and is on the verge of becoming an exodus of those concerned voices etc etc etc. On a long enough timeline, no one benefits but predatory shitbirds. This seems a conflict of “Do you try to keep the peace?” or “Do you take major corrective actions?”

BizarroCon Director Rose O’Keefe has answered with her own apology and told what she’ll do to heal the community and keep the con viable:

What I understand is that people are feeling unheard and are dissatisfied with my response and/or lack of response to past as well as to present grievances related to their experiences at BizarroCon and in our community. I am truly sorry. Especially to my fellow women and to anyone who has felt harassed in any form. I let you down.

…I acknowledge that I have made mistakes and that there are problems in our community. Actions such as establishing an anti-harassment policy, appointing a trained counselor to handle issues that arise, recruiting the assistance of security professionals and military veterans from within our community to help during the event, banning offenders and unwelcome individuals privately rather than publicly and making unilateral decisions on who to welcome into our scene have not eliminated the sense of unease that many are expressing. Moreover, they haven’t sufficiently prevented instances of harassment and trauma from continuing to occur at our event. Therefore these things are insufficient and are in need of improvement. I am deeply regretful for this and it is my greatest wish to continue to work together to find meaningful resolutions to those problems and develop actionable plans to improve our future.

…Additionally, effective immediately, I would like to establish a Safety and Inclusion Committee for BizarroCon. It could be a group of 3-4 people whose responsibilities include fielding any complaints pertaining to our anti-harassment policy and creating very clear and specific protocol for handling and addressing these complaints. They may also audit panels for diverse panelists and topics.

I will also be expanding and improving the BizarroCon committee, establishing clear lines of responsibility, and delegating some of the roles and responsibilities that are in the best interest of the community. There is a lot that goes into running this thing and I know I am not alone in my desire to see this genre expand and improve and its level of professionalism increase. I see this moment as an opportunity for change and I am ready to embrace it.

…For now, one thing we can share is that in addition to the creation of the Safety and Inclusion Committee we will be crafting changes to the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown that will fully empower the hosts, the judges and the audience. I’d also like you to know that I have sent a letter to Edgefield apologizing to the staff who were on-duty at the Showdown last week.

Postscript: In case you wondered what artistic achievements are ordinarily presented at this event, author Zé Burns’ (“BizarroCon 11”) conreport describes 2019’s winning entries:  

Then came the highlight of the convention: the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown. Each participant was allotted six minutes to perform their weirdest story or sketch. These ranged from amusing monologues to such depravity that I dare not soil this page.

Cameron Pierce won, rapping humorous poetry under the moniker “Young Stepdad.” Danger Slater sang “Rainbow Connection” in a Kermit the Frog voice, wearing a green bodysuit and face paint and strumming a cardboard banjo, while Karl Fischer gave a pitch about teaching horses to ski, stopping here and there to moon the audience who in turn pelted him with oranges.

Update 01/26/2019: Dropped the comparison to the WHC “gross-out” contests after further comment from Brian Keene: “The Showdown was inspired by the old World Horror Gross Out contests, but they have always been separate things. Sometimes there has been some crossover content (Shane Mackenzie’s The Aristocrats, for example) but by and large, very different material for very different audiences. Only reason I compared them was to illustrate the Showdown’s origins. Didn’t mean to imply they are similar.”

8 thoughts on “A Reckoning for BizarroCon

  1. Okay, no. Brown baby doll or bloody, aborted baby doll, that performance as described was simply shitting all over the idea of consent. There’s nothing revelatory or illuminating about it. I wish Keene or someone else had stopped it, or some sizable portion of the audience had gotten up and walked out, but I can totally understand being too shocked to be able to act–and the longer everyone stays still, the harder it is for anyone to act.

    Oh, and no, it’s not “censorship” to decide you don’t want to be a party to something

  2. “The failure mode of…” comes to mind.

    I a bit split on this. When it comes to some art or performances, everything comes down to the audience. If they are well prepared, have an idea of what they might get to see and most important if they trust the artist. If they understand what the artist tries to show them and find some quality in it. And when they don’t, everything will become awkward and gross.

    The only thing I can conclude is that this seems to have been the wrong arena and the wrong audience. If that has always been the case, I can’t say because I’ve never really noticed this con before.

  3. I’m the same age as Brian Keene, and I thought, well the whole thing sounds really stupid to me, Not my scene but whatever floats boats. I feel about the whole concept like I did about the olden days when GWAR would show up at DragonCon. Shock and grossout for their own sake is not my thing. If that is what the convention is supposed to be all about then that’s what you sign up for. And I suppose you take the risk of seeing something that goes too far, or stumbles into some things that are taboo even in a “we break all taboos” space, and then standards or rules have to be set for the future.

    I do appreciate the way Brian Keene was honest about his reactions and thought process in the situation and grappled with what he should have done in retrospect. I could relate to what he was saying because you do hit an age when you start to wonder if you are just an old fart and if that’s what the kids are into, hey, we had our time, let them have theirs.

    It seems to me like this is a very particular situation within the context of a convention that seems to be all about being weird and gross and transgressive and all that, so you do consent to having sensibilities pressed on hard when you decide to attend, so I don’t feel quite the outrage that I have about other situations at other cons. And I do appreciate that the performer himself has had a fairly thoughtful reaction to the hue and cry, and I hope he continues to do so. In a way the way people are discussing and processing the whole thing makes me feel more hopeful than I have in the past about these kinds of blow ups.

    Two final thoughts:
    1) I assume Morrison has no intention of ever attempting to direct a Disney movie or become the Florida Secretary of State in future years; if he did he probably should give up on those now.

    2) everything I said is about the performance part of the controversy. In the general realm of the convention, even one as out there as this one seems to be, I think harassment policies and general Con behaviour rules outside of understood, unambiguous performance space should be very much like the developing set of policies that is beginning to come together in The other various cons. I’m glad they are trying to be more diverse and inclusive and I’m glad there seems to be a recognition that more women in a particular scene leads to people with bad behaviours trying to take advantage of it, and that the recognition is certainly arriving more quickly than it has with the general SF and skeptic gathering scene. Gaining recognition that there really are problems, and that they need to be dealt with, has been slow and painful but at least a consensus seems to be forming and picking up speed. So as gross and ugly as all this sounds, the discussion around it has me hopeful for the longer run.

  4. >I assume Morrison has no intention of ever attempting to direct a Disney movie or become the Florida Secretary of State in future years; if he did he probably should give up on those now.

    Hm. Do you suppose someone got the performance on video? Wonderful thing for your grandkids to find on the internet some day.

  5. I feel the same way about the “performance art” that I read here to reading about G.G. Allin’s stage antics.

    Not worth bothering about beyond really ignoring it.

  6. Pingback: Changes in Store for BizarroCon | File 770

  7. That goes beyond even

    “Finally Dan Hartnett, the projectionist for the performance, came out. He looked really shaken – he said the peformance had started out with porn films projected on a screen, Joe Coleman had made his entrance by swinging through the screen, and then took out a couple of pet mice and bit their heads off. Then Joe’s wife (the lady in the druid costume?) had strapped what appeared to be firecrackers onto his chest and had lit the fuses. Dan said she had been trying to put as many on him as she could – he speculated that she wanted to kill him – and the explosion had been really powerful. The smoke was so thick that Dan couldn’t see if Joe was hurt or even if they were continuing with the act. In the end, the smoke got so bad that people couldn’t breathe and the entire audience fled out the door and down the fire escape,…”

    https://web.archive.org/web/20080719170330/http://www.smpte-ne.org/articles/bfvfcoleman.html

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